DIFFERENT BUTTONS Avenue, Ipswich

MEMORIES OF A MADHOUSE

Hard on the heels of her admirable PROGRESS, Joanna Carrick of Red Rose Chain revives (in this elegant new studio theatre) an earlier piece devised as site-specific three years ago for the closing of the old Victorian asylum in Ipswich: St Clements. The sound design, indeed, by Laura Norman, has used recordings made inside that haunting space, in corridors and abandoned wards: the stories threaded through small scenes and monologues reflect reality. And, of course, the history of the great Victorian change, approaching the ‘lunatic paupers of the borough” in a way more humane than the old imprisoning madhouses . Though still, to our modern eye, wincingly difficult to watch.
In a bare but convincing space – old radios, old magazines, hospital chairs – the five cast switch roles . Tom McCarron is sometimes a foul-mouthed inmate but often a doctor, or a Victorian journalist giving his account of the place’s foundation; Herbert Brett and Daniel Abbott as other male inmates, the former rantingly aggressive, the latter curled, terrified, foetal and trembling; Rachael McCormick as an older, longterm female inmate, working as a maid, put in by her father as an uncontrollable “moral imbecile” in 1924. There is – when one has just walked to the Avenue across it – a particular jolt when she remembers being brought across the stone bridge by the station on the day it was opened, amid free and happy crowds: it reminds you of the resonance of this kind of powerfully local theatre.

But at its centre is Lucy Telleck as a modern young woman, seemingly hard-faced , resentful and unhappy, waiting for her appointment and haunted by these ghosts of earlier time. Carrick makes good dramatic use both of contemporary writings on madness, with old obsessions like measuring people’s heads (“Cranium – narrow”) and also of the sad tickbox forms modern depressives are asked to fill in “I am feeling useful / Hopeful / confident – Most of the time / some of the time/ none of the time…” etc: Telleck develops into a powerful emotional presence, both in her modern defiant indignation and in the moments when she regresses into an overwhelmed Victorian mother interned against her will.
The piece does provoke thought: about changing ideas, and the perennial struggle of the “sane “to help or contain “mad”. It pulls no punches about irrationality, persecution mania, violence, the difficulty of comforting the unreachable, and the simple frustration of dealing with the silent, trembling youths played by Abbott (another strong presence). Dramatically, sound and light are strong, and it is a short piece, ninety minutes including interval.

But it is not easy to watch: sometimes you feel like a rubbernecking onlooker in an older Bedlam, and correspondingly uncomfortable. Which, of course, is a tribute to the actors. The interwoven stories do become clearer as time goes on and there is another real emotional jolt at the end when the ghosts bid farewell to the troubled, modern Ruth: “Live without fear, no need for endless grieving.”

Box office http://www.redrosechain.com to 28 march
RATING three 3 Meece Rating

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