Some evenings as a theatre reviewer you have to step into a 1970s mental hospital and experience the events as they unfold, as part of the staff.
Upon entering the old church in Canning Town, we were asked to go through the right or left doors, not knowing what that meant. We chose left, were given lanyards and instruction, we were now junior doctors being shown the ropes before the patients were led into the room, a collection that was both casts and fellow audience members. What followed was just over an hour of taking part in the daily routine at the mental hospital, with medications, group therapy, admitting a new patient, helping out with paperwork, supervising lunch, and at one point moving furniture around so that every chair and sofa was facing the same way for a television that was due to be rolled in.
Every moment was interactive, we were spoken to directly and could engage with both staff and patients, it truly felt like having stepped through a portal into a different world, and it was impossible to predict what would happen.
That’s also true for the performers. We were fortunate enough to speak with some of the company after the performance, and they told us that the actions of the audience would lead to different paths through the narrative, so the show is different every night. This explained some of our confusion as we weren’t completely sure at one point who was a member of the cast and who was in the audience as one of our group got into a discussion with the head doctor and kept saying it’s a matter that should be dealt with outside the group. We genuinely thought she was a plant and was very surprised to hear she was not – she’d had a one to one experience with one of the cast members and was getting so into the world she was reluctant to share a private conversation with the rest of us “Doctors”.
It takes a lot of skill and connection with your character to be able to roll with the punches and basically improvise two shows a night, and I didn’t once see anyone drop character. Every single one was thoroughly believable, although I felt there was a bit of stereotype to the head doctor and the support worker characters but I get that they had to have two strong polar opposites to run the drama. Respectively they argued strongly pro and against medication and a traditional mental health approach and thankfully the show didn’t preach either message as they were both misguided in some of their ideals, which I liked. There have been terrible things done in mental health, but I can’t get behind the support worker’s stance that none of the patients there needed medication, either.
I would’ve loved to have seen the show again in the other strand, and be a patient. I wonder how differently I would have reacted and what information I missed. And as I now know there is a giant flowchart that can lead to a completely different outcome, I’m not sure I’d be able to resist gently pushing in a different direction. It’s a bit like choose your own adventure but as a group.
Immersive theatre can be a very mixed bag, but my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed Northfields and we agreed we would be very happy to see another production by this creative team. The only reason I’m docking a star is because I did feel we didn’t get enough information about some of the characters and I would’ve liked to be with the patients more and learnt about what led them to being admitted initially. But that’s me being picky, I thought this was a really interesting experience.
Review by Tori Jo Lau
Set in the late 1970s at the cusp of mental health reform, Shrink theatre present an immersive theatrical journey through an institution on the verge of closure. Delve into the lives of our residents and staff, and take your place in the system during this pivotal time. Will Northfields provide the care you require? And what do you know about running a hospital?
Reflecting on the NHS past and present, we challenge you to think about the treatment of mental health both medically and socially, then and now. How much has really changed in 40 years?