Written for Totally Theatre
The Bethlem Royal Hospital, once known as the ‘human zoo’ in a byname that wouldn’t look out of place as a Sun headline, was seen by the good people of the 18th Century as one of the most desirable shows of London. Now the inspiration for Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam, mad people are once again being viewed as a spectator sport, although The Globe is hoping through more enlightened eyes.
More enlightened they may be, but there is still a sense of the gratuitous in Leyshon’s flat and irregular play. Madness comes and goes at a whim, characters flirt around each other like lovers in an under-baked Rom-Com and there is absolutely no sense of what it must have been like within the barriers and cells of this historical institution. Whilst entertaining enough to raise a smile, behind the fluff Bedlam is a hospital full of two dimensional clowns and bullies, tyrants, youths and lovers, and very little else.
Dr Carew is the doctor who rules Bedlam with an iron fist. The arrival a beautiful country girl signals the beginning of the end for this villain as his grip is slowly weakened by the onset of madness and an abuse of alcohol. Meanwhile a sane girl is vindicated, a charlatan taught a sharp lesson and a beauty rescued by her lost love.
Citing Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress as her starting off point, Leyshon has failed to successfully show any of the meaty despair so tangible in the demented and debauched figures that populate these magnificent etchings. This Bedlam is more like a preening peacock, the postures and mannerisms are as cartoon-ish as Hogarth’s but here are worn like garments to be shown off and displayed; the peacock puffs out it’s chest out and we are supposed to be impressed.
It is undoubtedly performed with energy by a spirited cast, particularly by the buxom Ella Smith, foppish Sam Crane and wholesome Phil Cheadlen. But with material that gives them nothing to get their teeth into it is hard for any of them to shine with great performers like Finty Williams and Kevork Malikyan being cruelly wasted.
Bedlam is fairly jolly but never quite as fun as it thinks it is and it is only in the moments of choral singing that the tragedy and pain of madness is expressed or felt. Dr Carew’s descent into dementia makes no sense and the subplots are thin and easily forgotten. Is it farce or historical drama? Whilst it could have been both, Leyshon seems as confused as some of the afflicted in her play and so it ends up being neither.
Running until 1st October 2010