Writer: Access All Areas and Max Barton
Director: Nick Llewellyn
Reviewer: Christie-Luke Jones
MADHOUSE re:exit is an immersive exploration of the cruel but fascinating history of institutions, from the familiar gloom of the Victorian ‘madhouse’ right through to the contemporary emergence of domestic institutionalisation.
Residing in the bowls of Shoreditch Town Hall, a world away from the vibrant East London streets above, the fictional Paradise Fields care facility is a labyrinthine ecosystem populated by a diaspora of grinning, corporate care workers, emotionally-detached doctors and most crucially, a diverse cast of long-suffering residents.
The staging is consistently atmospheric, with sterile, strip-lighted visitor centres punctuating the grim reality of a dark and hopeless prison. The audience, or in the context of the piece, tour group, is led through the maze-like structure by a mix of employees and residents of the facility. The mostly pink-suited members of the former of these two groups exude a wave of corporate artifice that at first raises chuckles, but later evokes confusion, anger, and eventually empathy.
The residents of Paradise Fields are headed up by five learning disabled artists from the Access All Areas theatre company – here representing a goddess, a baby, a bird, an eater, and an escapist. In its portrayal of these five characters is where MADHOUSE re:exit really excels as a progressive piece of immersive theatre.
The tour group is often crammed into tiny, oppressive spaces, wherein one of the five artists presents their own personal story of life within the institution. Each of these theatrical set-pieces is intense and uncomfortable, forcing the individual members of the tour group to bear witness to some truly eye-opening realities.
In one particularly claustrophobic space, the tour party is invited to feed a ‘fussy’ resident (Dayo Koleosho) by shooting liquid peas from giant syringes directly into the grown man’s gagged mouth. Deeply disturbed countenances quickly replace uncomfortable laughter, a shift made all the more impactful by the fact that everyone is practically touching noses at this point. The scene takes another emotional jackknife when the patient recedes from view and addresses the party by means of a fuzzy video link. Suddenly the tour party are inside the fishbowl instead of looking in, and not a single word or glance is exchanged during a humbling monologue from the face within the pixelated monochrome window.
There are also moments of unbridled joy to be found within the troubled walls of Paradise Fields’ ‘minimal intervention’ care facility. The Goddess is a character inspired by the Olmec tribe in Central America, a group of people who worshipped individuals with down syndrome as jaguar-gods. The Goddess, or ‘Lady Jag’ (played by Imogen Roberts) confidently instructs the party to abandon their discomfort and dance with her to a soaring club track. She looks each member of the group square in the eye, creating a personal and unfettered bond with everyone in the room. By the end of the song, not one person is standing still and there are big, toothy smiles as far as the eye can see.
MADHOUSE re:exit’s thought-provoking live-action set pieces are linked together with a variety of audio-visual components. Real-life news stories and fictional promos from Paradise Fields PLC undoubtedly add to the immersive quality of the production but are far less impactful than the areas of the institution wherein the tour group are stood face-to-face with the facility’s ‘service users’. Moving from video screen to video screen feels more like a computer game cut scene than an immersive theatre experience, and wisely Access All Areas restrict this element of the production to a purely contextual function.
Access All Areas have created a truly vast and affecting world beneath a busy Shoreditch street, and to attempt to describe it in its entirety would be both an exercise in futility as well as an insult to the depth and attention to detail within this impressive production.
Runs until: 28 March | Image: Contributed