Review: Lullabies of Broadmoor

My expectations were high as I arrived at the Finborough Theatre for a mammoth theatre experience; a quartet of plays recommended in Lyn Gardner’s ‘What to See this Week’ at a theatre venue that has won numerous awards including Fringe Theatre of the Year 2010. Steve Hennessy’s Lullabies of Broadmoor has just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe to the kooky-yet-chic Finborough Theatre, where Hennessy was writer-in-residence from 2004-2006. Hennessy originally wrote Wilderness back in 2002 and had no idea that nearly a decade later he would have written a further three episodes to complete his Broadmoor Quartet. Set in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the plays are based on the true stories of five of the inmates from the late nineteenth through to early twentieth century. The plays themselves are each dedicated to the victims of the inmates’ crimes.

The quartet kicks off with the most recently written, Venus of Broadmoor, telling the tale of Christiana Edmunds, ‘The Chocolate-Cream Posioner’. The set-up for this and the preceding three plays involved the four actors performing a physical score on a loop. The subtle repeated gestures and movements began to give an insight into each character and were performed with absolute precision and clarity. Ten minutes of repetition left me almost bursting with anticipation, and the play did not disappoint. Principal attendant John Coleman (Chris Donnelly) is the constant element throughout the four plays. Venus of Broadmoor begins with a monologue by Coleman, brimming with nervous excitement. His level of focus and engagement remained throughout the quartet. We see Coleman on a torturous journey as he tries to “stay on the wagon” and resist his inappropriate lusting for the murderer Christiana Edmunds. As this first piece unravels it soon becomes clear that physical gesture and recurring motifs were to be crucial to the development of plot and character. Clever choreography was used to suggest props, people and scenery that allowed the audience to open their imaginations and be taken on a journey.

The second offering, The Demon Box, introduced the artist and murderer Richard Dadd and ex-surgeon Doctor William Chester Minor. The Demon Box imagines that these two criminals are forced together to work on painting the backdrop for the Broadmoor Theatre. Both men are deeply troubled by their past and Hennessy interweaves their tales with that of Ariel and Prospero from The Tempest and the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis. The Demon Box shows us many different perceptions of the same characters, and gives an interesting view on the treatment and attitudes towards mental health at the turn of the century. There were some beautiful links back to the first play both in the form of textual repetition and in gesture. The final words of the first play, “light . . .  and air . . .  and clouds”, are echoed by Ariel several times so that although each play is self-contained there is a lovely feeling of continuity, almost like episodes of a dark soap opera.

Play number three, The Murder Club, is driven by a central character, the feisty ghost of murdered prostitute Olive Young (Violet Ryder). With a slightly modern feminist edge, Olive has the power to freeze and play with the action on stage with a mere click of her fingers. The audience is immediately drawn to like her with witty one-liners such as “there are too many todgers in the world”. Unfortunately, however, Olive does not possess enough power to actually change the course of events and has to watch as her killer torments and manipulates his fellow inmates and the attendant Coleman. The Murder Club has a rather self-referential feel as Broadmoor’s Social Club is planning on putting on a play, a play that just so happens to be a direct re-telling of the murder carried out by failed actor Richard Prince (Chris Courtenay). The sadistic Ronald True, (Chris Bianchi) uses emotional blackmail to torture Prince, and Bianchi’s creepy portrayal left me feeling sick to the stomach.

The fourth and final installment, Wilderness, was littered with clever echoes of the previous three plays and the return of Doctor William Chester Minor who features in The Demon Box. Minor is overcome with remorse for his crime and strikes up an unlikely friendship with his victim’s widow when he offers her money to compensate for the murder of her husband. Possibly the most difficult to watch, Wilderness tears our allegiances between the characters as the attendant Coleman has succumbed to his drink addiction and appears to be losing his sanity, and Minor is clearly on an emotional rollercoaster and bound to snap at any minute. It is cleverly written so that we don’t really know who to believe at any given moment. There is a great moment where Minor talks as if possessed by the ghost of his victim, but is sharply reprimanded by the widow who points out that he couldn’t possibly be her late husband as he would never use foul language. The quartet climaxes in a gruesome act of violence that left the gentlemen in the audience crossing their legs and squirming in empathetic pain.

The cast and direction of this show were absolutely brilliant, from the flexibility of the actors to take on so many roles to the physical precision and complicity. Hennessy’s excellent use of language make Lullabies of Broadmoor a real treat for the young-at-heart as this production is storytelling for adults at its very best. Tim Bartlett’s flawless lighting design played a key part in distinguishing fantasy from reality and dream from hallucination. All-in-all this play deserves sell-out performances every evening. The opportunity to see four plays in a day is a rare but exciting treat and I would highly recommend giving it a go.

Lullabies of Broadmoor is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 1st October. For more information see the Finborough Theatre website.