Takin’ Over The Asylum – February 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Donna Franceschild

Directed by Mark Thomson

Co-production by Citizens Theatre and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh

Venue: Citizens Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th February 2013

The original TV series, broadcast in 1994, was so marvellous that I had to be careful not to expect too much from this stage version. I didn’t have to worry: within minutes the cast had created their own world and drawn us in, and with the action all taking place within the hospital itself, the sense of confinement was probably stronger than with the TV version which showed us a wider range of locations.

This stage version covered the same overall story with only a few changes as far as I could remember, and focused the scenes in the day room beside the old radio station, with a small outside space (for the smokers). The set had the radio booth on the left, windows across the back and the entrance on the right, with a small entrance lobby on the other side. The rest of the space was the day room, with a few chairs and a flatscreen TV on a table front right, facing into the room. In front of the stage on the right was a small section of metal stairway. I couldn’t see much more detail than this from our angle on the far left of the front row.

The play began with Aileen dictating the viewing preferences of the other inmates. When Eddie arrived, he began setting up the St Jude hospital radio, and came into conflict with that evening’s viewing schedule. Apparently between Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Eastenders, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for a 7-9pm radio show, even one playing excellent 60s soul music. But with the help of Campbell (manic depressive), Rosalie (compulsive cleaner), Fergus (schizophrenic technical wizard and serial escapee) and Francine (self-harmer), the radio station established itself, changing the lives of some of the inmates and giving us a chance to see them as people; with difficulties, true, but people all the same.

Apart from Aileen, the scariest ‘inmate’ was Stuart, the male nurse who frequently exerted his authority in an unpleasant manner until an attempt to take Aileen’s mobile phone from her resulted in a culinary threat which made him back off (“your balls are pancakes”). The deputy administrator Evelyn was something of a martinet, in a friendly, cardigan-wearing kind of way, and there were strong hints that but for the attitudes of their nearest and dearest outside the hospital, these people would be living happy, productive lives.

The story had been updated to include references to more recent music, TV etc., and Fergus even brought a laptop into the studio. When the radio station was threatened with closure, a switch to online broadcasting provided an alternative outlet, and there were references to Simon Sharma as a suitable role model for an interview persona. The updating worked really well; I don’t know how much, if anything, had to be changed in relation to the mental health laws, but I suspect things have probably got worse rather than better – a program note would have been helpful.

Our view was pretty good. I couldn’t see Francine crying in a corner in the first scene nor in one of the later ones, but apart from that we saw most of the action in both halves. I noticed a lot of water running down the windows during several scenes – I’d forgotten just how much it rains in Glasgow. Steve was more affected than I was and would have rated the experience higher; I still found the performance moving and I’m glad to say my sniffles were entirely due to the emotional effect and not to any incipient cold. That reminds me: I did like Rosalie’s comment about the radiothon podcast going ‘viral’ – as soon as she said the word we could see she wasn’t keen on the idea, and her next line confirmed that.

The performances were all very good, and after a slowish start we were hooked into the characters and their situations, just as we had been with the TV series. I felt that Fergus’s death was less emotive, as they simply reported it instead of us seeing him on the roof, but the hang-gliding was still in there – we caught a glimpse of someone flying past the windows, with much cheering from the inmates – and the sense of waste was still strong. Knowing the truth about Harriet the bag lady made Eddie’s references to her very funny at times, and there was plenty of humour all through the evening, especially in Campbell’s manic DJing, to offset the sadness and suffering. Brian Vernel, who played Campbell, has still to finish his training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, though what they have left to teach him is anybody’s guess.

The whole ensemble was good though, the 60s music was brilliant, and the packed house gave them an excellent reception. As we left we were handed a flyer for Doctor Faustus, due here in April – I think they were a bit surprised when we said we’d already seen it!

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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