Theatre doesn’t have to be enjoyable. I get that. Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem certainly isn’t a comfortable night at the theatre. I was left wondering exactly what I’d subjected myself to. Was it provocative theatre, or was it just uncomfortable?
The premise of Rachel Tookey’s hard-hitting play is the idea that mental health issues, specifically suicide, ‘run in the family’ somehow. Or at least, if someone in the family has committed suicide, a second death is 4-6 times more likely. Maybe I should have known from this alone that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Even so, aside from the ‘12+ age restriction’ nestled at the bottom of the press release, I couldn’t spot a content warning anywhere. And in the close proximity of the ‘Old Red Lion’, multiple suicide scenes might have warranted a little more circumspection from the producers.
The narrative skips its way across three generations of a family, each dealing with their own personal problems: Eamonn (Dan Mullane) seems to have PTSD from his time in an (abusive?) Irish Catholic convent; Sarah (Madeleine Bowyer) has inherited some trauma from dealing with her alcoholic father, and the middling success of her own life; Ben (Daniel Rainford) subsequently bears the brunt of his mother living her life through him, alongside the stresses of Cambridge University. Each character is situation-specific in their difficulties, but Tookey’s script subtly suggests that ‘it’s all connected’; that trauma is transferable, and families can be both the support you fall back on, and the pressure that pushes you on.
Each scene seems to be in a different time frame, jumping from Sarah returning from her father’s funeral, to Ben’s birth, to his failure of third year of university, to Sarah’s A-Levels and on and on. It’s not clear what motivates the need to constant changes of setting, and the cast manage with differing levels of success. Rainford seems to capture a generic ‘dead-eyed teenager’ level of energy throughout but doesn’t offer much variation therein. Mullane provides some vocal range, though this seems to be more of a moderation according to the severity of his depression than an approximation at different ages. Bowyer, on the other hand, delivers an excellent vocal range, varying accent and pitch accordingly. Her very capable performance makes us forget the random scatter chart approach to time throughout the play.
Sarah seems to be the central character of the play, on the one hand, balancing her father’s gradual lapse into old age and depression, on the other, her son’s difficult time at university. It seems like she finds an appropriate middle ground between support and pressure; it’s not clear whether she is fully sympathetic to the very obvious issues her son is dealing with. But how sympathetic can one be, all the while retaining the responsibilities and pressures of parenthood? Equally, she faces an endless arsenal of emotional abuse from her father, and though he is clearly mentally unwell, she’s only his daughter. Tookey’s script seems to point out everyone’s inadequacy in dealing with the difficulties life throws at us.
This balance, and the difficulty of finding it presents us with some very bitter arguments, passionate accusations, and some deeply uncomfortable scenes, from bulimic vomiting, to emotional abuse, to gaslighting and multiple suicide attempts. While each character is somewhat sympathetic, Mullane’s character is so unpleasant, it’s difficult to find any affinity with him. Rainford’s mildly comic performance as the universally lazy teenager generates wide appeal. The play seems to focus, then, on Bowyer and the enormous strains faced by the family of those with mental health issues.
In this light, it might be tempting not to file Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem in the category of ‘plays about people with mental health issues/disabilities’, but of ‘families of those with mental health issues/disabilities, and how tricky it is’. Mental health issues and disability rarely get placed centre stage in today’s world, but when they are, they often face the criticism of being slightly ‘off-centre’.
Disabled characters often play a variation on what has been dubbed the ‘magical negro character’: a character of minority ethnic status, whose role is to facilitate the emotional development of the main character (Green Book being the most recent example of this). Within the realm of mental health and disability, we get the disabled character as the vehicle by which the central role realises some greater truth about ‘humanity’ (think Rain Man). More recently, this trope has evolved into a slightly more mental health-oriented narrative, but one which focusses on the family of the disabled character (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, All in a Row, etc). Here the focus is wholeheartedly on mental health and disability, but more so on how tricky it is for the family, rather than on the individual in question.
Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem, with its enhanced sympathy for Sarah above and beyond the ‘others’, seems to slip into this category. While this narrative is an important one, and in the conversation on mental health, all voices are valid and need to be heard, balance is of supreme importance. Skewed in the wrong direction, as it seems All in a Row was, for instance, the sentiment of the play can lean towards highlighting how much of a drag on time and effort mental health and disability is. No doubt, the broader message is one highlighting the fact that these difficulties are socially contingent, but rarely is the disabled character in question given their own voice to express this. I don’t think Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem falls neatly into this category, but with its primary focus on Bowyer’s character and the minimal testimony of the other two characters made me somewhat uncomfortable.
I confess that I didn’t read the whole press release from start to finish before the show. And perhaps I didn’t take the time to search for a sign at the entrance to the theatre. Indeed, Producer Hannah Tookey assured me there were plenty of signs and warnings. Perhaps I should have got the message from the subject matter, but I hadn’t anticipated the intensity and possibly traumatic effects of watching the show.
Even so, I couldn’t spot a single warning. Not on my programme, not at the entrance; no links to Samaritans or Nightline; no after show ‘if you feel like any of these issues affected you personally’. I don’t doubt that Tookey is right, and that I should have looked a bit harder. Maybe the warnings were in place, and I just wasn’t looking hard enough. But given the intimacy of the venue, the screeching intensity of multiple suicide scenes and emotional abuse, perhaps I shouldn’t have had to make the extra effort to prepare myself for 2 hours of trauma and suicide. Telling stories is important, no matter the difficulty of the subject matter but storytelling is not just about redistributing trauma; it’s also about sharing a touch of hope and ‘togetherness’.
Review by Thomas Froy
Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem explores the little-known but urgent issue of how mental illness can spread throughout multiple generations, creating fresh trauma in a society unforgiving of those who do not fit the mould. In doing so, the play also touches on society’s continued omertà around suicide and mental health, particularly within the Catholic Church and in families of Irish heritage.
The story was inspired by the family of playwright Rachel Tookey her grandmother’s early life in an abusive Irish Catholic orphanage, the suicides of her aunt and uncle, and her own struggles with mental health issues while a student.
Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem stars Daragh O’Malley (star of the long-running hit show Sharpe’s alongside Sean Bean, On Home Ground, Waking the Dead, Silent Witness), Madeleine Bowyer (Black Mirror, Emmerdale, Holby City) and Daniel Rainford (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama graduate).
EAMONN: DAN MULLANE
SARAH: MADELEINE BOWYER
BEN: DANIEL RAINFORD
WRITER: RACHEL TOOKEY
DIRECTOR: THOMAS MARTIN
COMPOSER: HOLLIE BUHAGIAR
PRODUCER: HANNAH TOOKEY FOR VOXIE PRODUCTIONS
DESIGNER: GEORGIA DE GREY
LIGHTING DESIGNER: PETE MAXEY
CASTING DIRECTOR: JANE FRISBY
ARTWORK: LAURA WHITEHOUSE
Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem
By Rachel Tookey
Presented by Voxie Productions
Suitable for ages: 12+
Trigger warnings: Features swearing and suicide.
Running time: 110 minutes (including 15-minute interval)
Relaxed performance: Wednesday 8th May, 3.00pm
Friday 3rd May – Saturday 25th May 2019