Lullabies of Broadmoor: A Broadmoor Quartet

Four plays by Steve Hennessy

Stepping Out Theatre in association with Chrysalis and Simon James Collier

Finborough Theatre

(2011)

Review by Howard Loxton

These four plays, presented as two separate double bills, are all set in the criminal lunatic asylum opened in 1863 and since 1948 known as the Broadmoor Hospital. They are set at different periods from 1872 to 1922 and feature five of some of the institution's most prominent prisoner patients.

The each play centres on the story of one particular murderer and their victims with some characters recurring in other plays, especially warder John Coleman, principal attendant on the Broadmoor staff who acts as narrator to three of the plays as well as being part of the action. Chris Loveless' production deftly interweaves the strands of present-tense, flash-back, ghosts, hallucinations, horrific imagination and patches of poetic imagery. He starts each play in the same way: with all the characters on stage as the audience takes its seats. To a repetitive music track which swells and recedes in volume they each repeat their own cycle of action many times to the point where you can't help but feel the weight of the seemingly endless chain of days of their confinement.

Venus at Broadmoor, set in the summer of 1872 gives us the story of Christiana Edmunds, the "Chocolate Cream Poisoner" as she was dubbed by the press, who, when her married lover decided to break off their relationship, attempted to poison his wife with a gift of chocolates laced with strychnine. They made her ill but didn't kill her. However in the following year Edmunds obtained chocolates to which she added poison then returnied them to the shopkeepers, leading to an outbreak of poisoning in Brighton, which included the death of a little boy on holiday, four year old Sidney Barker. But neither this, nor any of the other plays, is just about a murder: they give a picture of the nature of madness in its different forms, touch on ideas about its treatment and explore what might tip individuals into psychotic unbalance. They are not concerned only with the inmates for everyone in these plays has issues and problems they find difficult to face.

Venus at Broadmoor introduces the character of Coleman, sitting on duty reading a 'penny dreadful' and taking an occasional tipple from the flask he should not be carrying. I don't know whether Coleman is an actual historical person (everyone else in these plays certainly is), but Chris Donnelly makes him a very real one, as easy in his contact with the audience as he is caring of those in his charge.

"What," asks Coleman, "is the cure for love?" for he becomes obsessed with Miss Edmunds, whose madness seems linked with nymphomania. She turns her wiles on Dr Beard, the compassionate Medical Superintendant at Broadmoor whose kindness and belief that talking to patients to make them understand their crime will help towards a cure is dismissed as sentimental by his medical peers. Then there is her ex-lover with his guilt to hide.

The Demon Box is set in the same period and introduces the painter Richard Dadd and William Chester Minor, a lexicographer and former surgeon during the American Civil War. Dadd is famous for his extraordinarily detailed paintings, especially those of fairies. Dadd had already spent twenty years in Bedlam before being moved to Broadmoor, and in 1872 redecorated of the theatre there, including painting a drop cloth for the stage. On a painting tour in the Middle East, he had developed an obsession about the Egyptian god Osiris and, believing it to be at the god's instruction, had killed his father. Dadd seems to have a companion spirit based on Shakespeare's Ariel (though played by the same actress in the same costume there is a hint that this delusion might be linked with 'Venus' Edmunds). Dadd's is an imagination that sometimes breaks its bounds into fits of madness.

Dr Minor, who is haunted by his Civil War experiences, which are at the centre of the final play of this quartet, has recently arrived and, since he is interested in both theatre and painting, Coleman thinks he may be able to help Dadd with the redecoration which is taking far too long, but Minor seems to become part of Dadd's paranoia. What was intended as part of the socialising that improves the life of the inmates goes terribly wrong and we begin experience something of what these men feel.

The Murder Club presents two patients in 1922: failed actor Richard Prince who has already been there half a century and newly arrived conman Ronald True. Price was the killer of West End heartthrob William Terriss, True had battered a prostitute to death with a rolling pin, a murder committed just down the road from the theatre. This was a time when British Imperial forces were using aerial bombardment and probably poison gas to wipe out Kurdish opposition in Iraq, for Winston Churchill had certainly expressed himself "strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes". Who is mad and who is a murderer is a question the dramatist certainly raises but the emphasis here is on conman True's crime.

The narrator for this play is Olive Young, the woman True killed. Sexually abused by her father and thrown out by her mother when she got pregnant, she tries to understand why she let her murderer in when she already didn't like him. Meanwhile True, who never acknowledges his crime, goes on conning whoever he can while baiting Prince, a pathetic figure, now conductor of the institution's incompetently amateur orchestra.

I found this play less absorbing that the others, despite its link with a famous piece of theatre history when Terriss was killed outside the stage door of the Adelphi. I saw all four plays on the same day, so perhaps it just came at the point when my own energy had flagged. However, the last play Wilderness, which returns to Dr William Chester Minor, really gripped me.

Wilderness puts the clock back again to 1902, but the Wilderness of the title was a Civil War battleground in May 1864 where there were some 27,000 casualties, including many men burned in a forest fire. Minor is haunted by these memories and especially that of having to brand a young Irish soldier on the cheek with hot iron D as a deserter. Minor's crime was motiveless and accidental, in a delusion he thought he was being attacked by an Irishman and shot him, furnace stoker George Merrett whom we meet as a ghost along with his living widow who actually befriends Minor. Here we are presented with the very rational educated man, working over many years on his contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary, and at the same time lapsing into delusions of people breaking into his room and trying to poison him. Coming from a wealthy family and still getting an army pension, he has paid for a metal floor to be laid in his cell to prevent people coming up through the floorboards.

This may all sound pretty grim, and indeed it is, but both production and playing have a light touch that leavens it with humour. The cast of four who appear in every play have an opportunity to show of their versatility and make these characters truly come to life. Chris Bianchi is a touchingly disappointed Dr Orange, a bewilderingly disoriented Dadd, a truly nasty True and an innocently uncomprehending Merrett; Chris Courtenay plays the hypocritical Dr Beard, still jealous Prince and gives a particularly fine performance as Minor, driven eventually to self mutilation and Violet Ryder is flirtatious Christiana, the tantalising Ariel, a touchingly damaged and very honest Olive Yong and as Mrs Merrett we can see here trying to understand her own behaviour. Chris Donnelly's role stays the same but he is beautifully in character.

A suggestion of a gilded gothic proscenium arch and red drapes which suggest both Victorian opulence and the theatrical framework of the piece give a richness to what is otherwise a very simple staging by Ann Stiddard that throws the emphasis on the performers, carefully costumed by Rebecca Sellors (Christiana, for instance, in period underwear) and dramatically lit by Tim Bartlett. It takes a bold designer to just throw a cloth over things she doesn't want us to see but you can get away with it in this intimate theatre and when interest is so focused on the performers you rarely notice what is behind them.

"Lullabies of Broadmoor" runs at the Finborough Theatre with the plays paired in repertoire until 1st October 2011.