In the fictional asylum of Nell Leyshon's new play (the first by a woman to be presented at the modern or the original Bankside Globes) you pay your penny and get to see the madmen and there's an element of that to the play itself. Although one strand of the plot is the replacement of the savage treatment of the incarcerated with more humane measures, this is not an investigation of changing attitudes to mental illness or an historical recreation of the history of London's Bethlehem Hospital. Like those penny-paying eighteenth-century gawpers, you are there to have a laugh.
Most of Jessica Swale's energetic production is designed just to be fun. After a raucous musical opening the audience may be momentarily shocked by some of the treatments handed out to patients but even the horrors tend to be played for laughs.
There are a series of touching stories struggling beneath the Beggar's Opera style frivolity. There is May (Rose Leslie), the sweet country girl who lost her mind when the press gang took her lover Billy (Daon Broni) away; Stella (Lorna Stuart), the girl abandoned by her lover, crazed when they took her child away and now recovered but still trapped in the institution, and Tom (James Lailey), the ballad-singer who acts as story-teller whose wits were lost along with his investment in the South Sea Bubble. Oliver (Danny Lee Wynter), an artist who, from his cap, at first I took to be Hogarth, just wants to paint beauties but he has chopped up his sister; is he a threat?
Things are not all well in the household of the exploitive, lecherous, drunken madhouse proprietor Dr Carew (Jason Braughan). His son Matthew (Joseph Timms) is not one of the brightest and his upright, generous spirited wife is treated with scorn in this loveless marriage. Meanwhile Dr Maynard (Phil Cheadle), a newly elected governor to the institution, is carrying out an inspection and planning some reforms.
The father of Stella's child turns out to be an effete would-be poet (Sam Crane) toying with Finty Williams's wealthy widow Gardenia, though this performance leaves you in no doubt that she's the stronger. The posturing poet becomes a high-camp caricature with prancing lady gardeners and laurel wreathed lads posing as a fashionable grotesque grotto.
Most of the rest of the characters are played for realism, especially John and Sal (Patrick Brennan and Sophie Duval), who look after the lunatics, and John's wife, generously proportioned Phyllis (Ella Smith) who has the audience in the palm of her hand as well as Dr Carew's cravings.
Not every performance is as strong and there is a conflict between reality and romp. You can't help but feel compassion for some of these people but, while the production is eager to involve the audience in its often bawdy humour rather than explore the issues which it hints at, there is so much going on that things become a muddle, like the minds of the asylum's inmates. Whenever there is a danger of things becoming serious there is a chase, a song or some other hilarity to fuel the fun and we end up with a pantomime happy ending that is a totally artificial resolution. Jack gets Jill and the villain gets his just deserts, reversing his situation.
Soutra Gilmour's colourful costumes and Olly Fox's music feel life enhancing but, though the second half is less frivolous and the individual stories become more comprehensible, there is little of substance here - or if there is it is swamped in giving the audience a good time..
In repertoire until 1st October 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton