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(c) Helen Murray

MADHOUSE re:exit

27 March 2018 Suzanne Frost

It’s worth looking at the little exhibition in the entrance hall before starting your immersive experience. On the medical certificate issued for Mabel Cooper in 1957 she is described as ‘an imbecile’, defined in the Mental Deficiency Act as: ‘a person in whose case there exists from birth or from an early age mental defectiveness’. An ‘imbecile’ is therefore not an ‘idiot’, but nevertheless incapable of managing themselves or their affairs.

The vocabulary that was used to describe people with learning disabilities is shocking. Mabel Cooper was put into St Lawrence Hospital, a long stay care facility that she described as a madhouse and a prison. Upon release from the institution, she became an active campaigner fighting until the last of these mental institutions was closed.


Mabel Cooper, age 7 at St Lawrnece hospital

With MADHOUSE re:exit, Access All Areas theatre company have created an immersive experience taking us back in time as visitors to one such institution. But MADHOUSE wants even more: apart from recreating a truly chilling old fashioned mental hospital, MADHOUSE also points the finger at struggles that are still real for people with learning disabilities as they are hit by financial cuts and often feel trapped and isolated without the help they need.
 
MADHOUSE is a show where reading the program is absolutely vital to understanding the experience. Rigorous research went into creating the spooky maze of dark corridors, where the walls seem to constantly whisper and you dread what might be around the next corner. This rigorous research also went into the 5 characters the actors have created.


(c) Helen Murray

But first, a brochure is given to participants at the start of the experience advertising Paradise Fields plc, a modern minimal care facility. It could be mistaken for a real PR leaflet – before you notice that all the images of ‘users’ - as the patients are now called - are showing no faces. Some very perky ladies in pink are extremely happy to show us the super modern ultra-high-tech facilities full of online streaming resources that finally “do away with that pesky face to face contact”. Unfortunately, an unforeseen emergency calls them away and immediately, the bright and happy learning video is hijacked by the mysterious Patient 36 who will be our guide from now on. And so we enter into the labyrinth of bolted up blacked out windows, damp corridors and distant screams.


(c) Helen Murray

What MADHOUSE excels at is creating a very creepy and deeply disturbing atmosphere, despite minimal narrative, somewhat slow pacing and few spoken words. Scribbled notes and letters are scattered around the different sets, replicating real letters that people sent from long stay institutions asking to be released. Most of them were locked up for life. For a bit of joy, the nurses in the institutions often gave the residents caged birds, and so the first character we meet on our journey is a dancer in a feathered costume inside a human sized cage. His bird dance has a bitter-sweet beauty to it, before he is put back into a strait jacket.


(c) Helen Murray

The ‘useless eater’, a term coined in Nazi concentration camps, is a scene that asks us to do deeply humiliating and uncomfortable things to a man kept behind a glass screen in a horrible gag mask. Thankfully, actor Dayo Koleosho fills his scene with humour and warmth, shifting the power balance. Imogen Roberts’ character is a tribal goddess, inspired by the ancient Olmec tribe that worshipped people with Down syndrome as jaguar-gods. In her piece, she is reclaiming her femininity and power, creating a rare moment of joy in the sinister dungeons. The last room brings us back into the future where one of the modern facility ‘users’ is kept like a grownup baby in a child’s room.


(c) Helen Murray

Cian Binchy gives an impressive performance educating us about the struggles people with learning disabilities face nowadays. Because Theresa May decided, and at first it sounds reasonable, that money will go “to those most in need”, people who only need a little support fall through the cracks and end up being trapped inside their homes with no human contact leading to mental health problems.
 
MADHOUSE re:exit turns the audience at times into voyeurs, at times into perpetrators. It is a discomforting and powerful experience.
 
MADHOUSE re:exit is at Shoreditch Town Hall until 28 March.
 
 
 
 
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