Chris Bianchi and Violet Ryder in The Demon Box

Lullabies of Broadmoor

9th September 2011

Lullabies of Broadmoor, four linked plays written by Steve Hennessy and directed by Chris Loveless, are now in performance at the Finborough Theatre, London SW10.

Weaving together the stories of five Broadmoor inmates and their victims at the turn of the 20th century, these mini-dramas are funny and sad by turns… clever, moving, thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The Finborough is a seriously intimate theatre, perfect for creating an immediate sense of claustrophobia, and absolutely ideal for this quartet of plays in which the audience is asked to focus on – even to share – the delusions of the five mad heroes.

The plays are performed in a repertoire of two double bills, with the same four actors taking all the roles. Each double bill works on its own, but each will gain from being seen in conjunction with the other. The double bills can be seen separately and in either order, although it’s recommended to see Venus at Broadmoor and The Demon Box first. On seven days during the run, one can, as I did, see all four plays in a day: two in the afternoon, two in the evening. It’s a demanding, but rewarding, experience.

Venus at Broadmoor opens with a tableau in which the three men stand as if in a picture, while a light, ethereal girl moves among them, half-floating, half-dancing with an invisible partner. The cast remains this way for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes as the audience files in to this tiny auditorium. It’s an excellent way of luring us away from the 21st century, and the pattern is repeated – with suitable variations – at the start of each of the four plays.

Venus at Broadmoor, the story of the ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’ Christiana Edmunds, is the slightest, and perhaps the least successful, of the four – but it is engaging in its own way. It’s a touch melodramatic, appropriate to the late nineteenth century period in which it takes place, but a little uncomfortable in the context of today’s acting style and standards. There are some delightful moments, though, particularly the point at which actor Chris Donnelly moves seamlessly from playing John Coleman, Principal Attendant on the Gentlemen’s Block, into portraying four year old Sidney Barker, soon-to-be-victim of those poisoned chocolate creams: instantly believable.

Donnelly, as Coleman, is the character who links the four plays together: part-narrator, part-cast, full of his own doubts and difficulties. His consistency, his solid down-to-earthness, is welcome, and grounding in a play in which so much cannot be trusted, and in which more than one of the contributors turn out to be ghosts or figments of someone else’s imagination.

The Demon Box, the second of this pairing, works really well. Chris Bianchi, as painter Richard Dadd, is endearing and appealing. I wanted to protect him from the demands of the other inmates and the casual brutality of the staff. The dismantling of layers of convention made this play both shocking and sad.

The Murder Club, the first of the evening’s double bill, has a great sense of menace and a marvellous swell of music. Violet Ryder’s role consisted (as it did for a lot of the evening) of drifting ethereally, but her ability to inhabit each part and make different that which could be similar is impressive. She has a great sense of pace, and a great command of a lovely voice. An actress to watch for the future.

The thin division between sanity and madness is very close to the surface in The Murder Club – and the shocking lack of professionalism makes one realise how very badly the mentally ill were treated. Talk of the war in Iraq (the play is set in 1922) and government attitudes to the ‘enemy’ make this particularly apposite in today's political climate.

Violet Ryder in WIlderness

Wilderness, the evening’s final offering, is both powerful and moving, telling the story of William Chester Minor, one time surgeon in the American Union Army and a major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary during his time at Broadmoor. His account of his experiences on the battlefields of the American Civil War makes madness seem an eminently sane response.

For a sequence that has madness and murder at its heart, there is a surprising amount of humour throughout, from the witty to the earthy. There are strong home truths and powerful performances. This isn’t perfect theatre, for sure (a tightening of pace here and there would have been welcome, for example), but it does what theatre should: it’s demanding, challenging, absorbing and entertaining. Small scale theatre at its large scale best.

Runs until Saturday 1 October at the Finborough Theatre,
118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED

Box Office 0844 847 1652

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