Fast – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Kate Barton

Director: Kate Valentine

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

n the modern era, barely a week goes by without some new dietary fad hitting the headlines. Linda Barton’s 70-minute one act play, which is based on a true story, suggests that things may not have been very different more than 100 years ago.

In 1910, Dr Linda Hazard, author of a book entitled “Fast For the Cure of Disease”, is in charge of the Wilderness Heights sanitarium in Olalla, Washington State. Her pioneering methods, based on the belief that the cure for all ailments lies in diet, have already caused controversy in the Seattle press and an investigative hack, Horace Cayton Jr (Daniel Norford) is still on the case.

The play begins with the arrival of the English Williamson sisters, Dora (Natasha Cowley) and Claire (Jordon Stevens), seeking help from Dr Hazard. Shouldn’t the name have warned them? Poor Claire is suffering from a “tipped back uterus”, Dora’s condition is less clear. Undeterred, the sisters embark on a daily regime of asparagus soup and enemas, their health moving steadily in the wrong direction, pushed along by the domineering doctor, whose confidence in her methods remains undiminished.

“I will not be put down because of my sex” declares Hazard, touching on feminist themes which the play never fully explores. Indeed, there is more information about this apparently complex woman in Barton’s programme notes than in her play and Kate Valentine’s melodramatic production is far removed from a factual account of her life and work.

The tone of Valentine’s production is set by Caroline Lawrie’s over-the-top performance as Hazard, making her similar to one of the demented scientists that we associate with 1950s B movies, a sort of female Dr Frankenstein. As a result, the melodrama is often laughable, working against any attempts to make us empathise with the central character.

Emily Bestow’s austere split-level set design makes Wilderness Heights look like the health spa from Hell, the sisters being forced to sleep in beds that are at least two feet too short for them. This is consistent with a horror story, but that is not what we should be seeing. If Barton’s aim was to turn the spotlight on a little known figure from the histories of medical research and the feminist movement, she has succeeded only in arousing our curiosity. This misjudged production has very little real substance.

Runs until 9 November 2019

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