Head-Rot Holiday

Sarah Daniels
Weighed In Productions in association with CARBON
The Hope Theatre

Emily Tucker as Ruth, Amy McAllister as Dee and Evlyne Oyeedokun as Claudia Credit: Mark Overall
Amy McAllister as Dee Credit: Mark Overall
Emily Tucker and Evlyne Oyeedokun Credit: Mark Overall

Christmas can be stressful at the best of times, but when Penwell Special secure hospital organises a disco for its patients, then it looks like being a specially testing time for patients Ruth, Dee and Claudia.

They had better be seen as “normal” with the male patients if they are ever to get out of the place that one staff member refers to as head-rot hotel.

And that is not going to be easy for Dee (Amy McAllister), who dances with a man who thinks it's fun to tell her about the crimes he has committed against women. Then there is the matter of nurse Jackie calling her a “butch cow” and "an aggressive queer".

Claudia (Evlyne Oyeedokun) faces other prejudices with a patient repeatedly addressing her as “nigg” and staff writing in her case notes various racial stereotypes.

Nor is Ruth (Emily Tucker) finding it easy to dance with male patients given her history of being abused by her father and other men.

Sarah Daniels's 1993 play Head-Rot Holiday gives us an always engaging, often amusing slice of special secure hospital cruelty, focusing on three patients but including sympathetically nurses, a social worker and an angel who tries not to bear a grudge.

This is a fine production with a strong, confident cast of three who play nine characters so convincingly that someone sitting near me felt sure there were four actors, not three.

A control culture dominates Penwell. Barely any mention is made of treatment except as a control. Dee comments “if we laugh and cry in the same day we end up with medication”.

New nurse Sharon is told to prioritise her awareness of the emergency button in each room and to consign patients who break the rules to the seclusion room as punishment.

She is shocked to find that nurse Barbara stitches the wounds of patients who self harm without giving them painkillers as a supposed method of discouraging the self harm. Established staff get away with a lot, including scapegoating patients for staff difficulties.

Some of the professionals working with the women recognise the inadequacies of the system. In a gentle monologue, the social worker Chris (Amy McAllister) describes how Claudia had her children taken away from her as a result of reporting her depression to the doctor and then was sectioned because, in the process of angrily objecting to this, she tore the social worker’s coat with a potato peeler.

Chris says Claudia is not "well enough to have her children back but... (not) ill enough to go there."

Every terrible thing we see in this play has been listed in a whole stream of government reports that have repeatedly demanded changes to the special secure hospital system. This is a system that gave Jimmy Saville the keys to Broadmoor hospital.

The play is sensitively directed by Will Maynard who notes that, “today, women account for 21% of all incidents of self-harm in prison, despite the fact they only make up 5% of the prison population.”

The Justice Minister who led the government’s Female Offender Strategy (FOS) that was launched in June this year points out that, “57% of women in prison have suffered domestic abuse; 49% report needing help for mental health problems… Many end up in prison for relatively minor offences. Remarkably, a few each year, usually among the poorest, are there because they have not bought a TV licence.”

Yet Inquest says they “fear this strategy (the FOS) will not result in the structural change needed to prevent the ongoing harms and deaths in women’s prisons.”

In which case Head-Rot Holiday will remain a topical play for some time to come.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

Are you sure?