by Joe Penhall.
Arcola Theatre 27 Arcola Street E8 2 DJ To 20 November.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat 6, 13, 20 November 3pm.
Pay What You Can Tuesdays
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: Mark Courtice: 4 November.
Well acted revival of flawed psychiatric melodrama.
Joe Penhall’s 2000 mental hospital-set melodrama, revived by British/African company Tiata Fahodzi, was written to be played by three men; here it’s acted by women. The change doesn’t make this toxic mix of medical and racial politics believable, however.
Should mental patient Juliet be released or further sectioned to establish whether her symptoms are schizophrenia? Houseman Emily believes she should stay but consultant Hilary is conscious of the need to clear the bed. Juliet thinks she wants to go home, but her feelings matter little as a titanic power struggle between the two doctors rages over her head.
The believability problem is in the writing. It has a sort of fierce directness, and the doctors spout impressive jargon, but it doesn’t feel like Penhall has listened to people. There is little evidence he feels much sympathy with those, either doctors or patients, who find themselves in hospital.
Things are driven by plot rather than character, and there isn’t much subtlety in either the antagonisms of the doctors or the sub-Oleanna plot that turns on accusations of racial prejudice. This is reflected in Femi Elufowoju Jr’s clunky production, so Juliet peels the totemic oranges to a throbbing underscore and in blue light in case we miss the symbolic importance.
The three performances are, however, excellent. Despite her character being the least successfully changed from male to female, Helen Schlesinger is terrific as the vicious Hilary. She is splendidly queasy at those moments when she realises she hasn’t been as clever as she thought, and the ground is shifting beneath her feet. Ayesha Antoine makes sense of Juliet, who is written as a mess of symptoms rather than as person. Esther Hall’s Emily is brittle and continually faintly desperate. As the hysteria level ratchets up, she shows herself as needy as her patient.
Ultz’s set has the audience surrounding the room, looking at the action through letterbox windows reminiscent of the see-through mirrors of an interrogation room. It’s a cool, unengaged space furnished in institutional beige with authentically sagging ceiling tiles – you wouldn’t expect a great deal of high quality care in here.
Juliet: Ayesha Antoine.
Emily: Esther Hall.
Hilary: Helen Schlesinger.
Director: Femi Elufowoju Jr.
Sound: Simon McCorry.