Madhouse re:exit is an immersive theatre experience set in the bowels of ‘Paradise Fields’ a notionally luxury social care facility. Luxury it is not. Madhouse uses true accounts from surviving patients from St Lawrence’s Hospital in Surrey, a ‘madhouse’ of the old kind, and places them behind the scenes in Paradise Fields. The audience, led by the mysterious ‘Patient 36’, a disabled everyman figure, go on an alternative tour of modern social care. Access all areas mean to shake up our comfortable notion that those days of barbarism and humiliation in social care facilities are dead and give us an insight into the truth behind these squeaky clean, brittle plastic places.
One of the things that struck me immediately was the production value and immaculate attention to detail under the creative vision of designer Joanna Scotcher. Upon arrival I was handed an advertising leaflet for ‘Paradise Fields’. Absent-mindedly flicking through it, waiting for the show to start, one could be forgiven for thinking it was unrelated literature from a sponsor because it is so well produced. Of course, for the attentive viewer who reads the booklet properly, it stinks to high heaven and becomes laughable when compared with the alternative programme we are provided with at the end of the tour.
To begin the tour we were ushered into a waiting room. The set here was inspired and anyone who has sat in a medical waiting room would feel the familiarity of the clinical and sterile decor. Television screens burst into life with corporate content; an immaculate woman in pink with dulcet RP tones introduces us to the company and what they do. A second pink woman then enters the room with a clipboard to greet us. It is here that our attention is first drawn to feet and footwear as the audience is asked to organise themselves according to shoe size, establishing a symbolic through line for the entire show. Access All Areas draw upon the idea that patients of traditional asylums were stripped of their shoes so that they couldn’t run away and develops this into an inspired metaphor for humanity and identity. This is summed up and brought into horrible clarity by the final act: a poem written by Cian Binchy, ‘The Baby’, which leaves us with only the stark image of a pair of empty shoes.
The show consists of five separate acts devised entirely by disabled performers. Through these we are taken on a fully rounded journey simultaneously captivating and uncomfortable, from the beautiful movement pieces created by DJ Hassan and Imogen Roberts which begin with an utterly contagious and heart-warming joy and very quickly descend into heart-breaking tragedy as these two free and majestic animals (The bird and the Jaguar) are stripped of their jewelled shoes and imprisoned. One minute we are dancing along with Imogen and the next we are being asked to hurl peas at the ‘usleless eater’ portrayed by Dayo Koleosho, a moment made most uncomfortable by the laughter of the audience, before being silenced by a gorgeous monologue about Koleosho’s treatment at the hands of an ignorant general public.
The makers of Madhouse re:exit make no secret of their message. It cannot be coincidental that the pink ladies who provide the face of Paradise Fields are perfect Theresa May clones with a healthy dose of Margaret Thatcher, donning their signature skirt suit, pearl necklace combo and, of course, those much publicised pointed kitten heels both witch-like and entirely distinctive. These Theresa-like figures reappear regularly throughout the tour attempting to subdue and repress any acts of defiance from the patients.
While the message itself is intentionally unsubtle, the creation of it is both subtle and inspired. Tiny references like calling patients ‘service users’ (mimicking the way modern mental health patients are now referred to as ‘clients’) are little Easter eggs included to delight the attentive viewer. The closing act with Cian Binchy is the most explicit example of this political messaging as he calmly and eloquently articulates the problems with our current social care system, providing the most intelligent and rational voice in the show, only to be rebuffed by one of the Theresas, who pops a giant pacifier in his mouth, a painful and poignant image.
The performances all round were beautifully executed, both from the disabled performers and the actors filling the roles of the Paradise Fields staff. Jess Mabel Jones as Sue, the woman featured in the promotional material who appears right at the end, was particularly impressive, her portrayal was beautifully observed and her attention to detail in the way she moved and spoke was the icing on the cake of the authenticity of the ‘Paradise Fields’ experience. If nothing else is to be said about the show, it is just glorious to see the talent and creativity of these five disabled artists brought to life for an audience. These acts, though separate, are not disparate. They combine as different interpretations of a horrendous shared experience of sufferers with learning disabilities. It’s five artists using their art to kick butt and change the world. They are on the picket line with Mabel Cooper, leading the charge for an all new creative protest to their treatment. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the most important pieces of theatre I have seen in recent years and, though it is not for the faint-hearted, I believe it is something that everyone should go and see. Access All Areas have released a creative call to arms. Get up. Write that email. Post that letter to your MP. Rise above the contagion of apathy. I’ll be writing mine. I’m with number 36, are you?
Review by Rachael Sparkes
Inspired by a refusal to be silent, and a history of being ignored, 5 learning disabled artists take us on a wondrous adventure underground. A goddess, a baby, a bird, an eater and an escapist guide us through a maze-like institution, growling to be heard, and waiting for the revolution that is forever promised. As they tear back the walls to their lives, past and present spin together in a powerful expression of what it feels like to be learning disabled today.
Over two years, MADHOUSE re:exit has built on the legacy of Mabel Cooper, a learning disabled resident of a long-stay hospital, who pressed the button that blew up one of the last of these institutions in the UK. Now, award-winning theatre company Access All Areas return with a fantastical, disruptive, immersive experience that explores what this history means to learning disabled people today.
Developed with the Barbican, Shoreditch Town Hall, The Lowry, Battersea Arts Centre, Wellcome Trust, Arts Council England, and the Open University.
Access All Areas
Directed by Nick Llewellyn
Set Design by Joanna Scotcher
Lighting Design by Katherine Graham
Costume Design by Carley Hague
Shoreditch Town Hall, London, UK
12 March 2018
Images credit and copyright Helen Murray
13th to 28th March 2018