Monica Salvi is doomed to insanity. Her repertoire glows with the most compelling, extraordinary of characters who, as she recalls, “get all the best songs”. There’s just one problem: they’re all mad. In this manic one-woman show, Salvi pays homage to the lunacy embedded in her theatre career and the crazy women who define it. Following critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a recent New York debut, Mad Women In My Attic! now returns to London in what is a truly hysterical evening of cabaret.
The concept of Mad Women In My Attic! is tightly bound to the running theme of psychosis, but is a relatively simple one. Salvi is mad; her mind teems with the residual dregs of former personalities, the string of madcap women she has portrayed over the years, and is now confined to a mental asylum. Under the quiet supervision of pianist-cum-psychotherapist Michael Ferreri, the Madwoman summons us, her fellow inmates, to group therapy. Sitting there, in a cold, clinical cell while sound-tracked by an ominous dripping, Salvi takes us on a musical tour of her CV, showcasing the type of role she always seems to land and singing for us the zany songs that adjourn her career.
This format is a playground for Salvi. There is little in the way of stage clutter, only a psychiatrist’s couch and the effervescent piano, and the ease with which she embodies the psychotic is deftly caught. The Madwoman stalks wild-eyed around the stage, a luminous tangle of red hair streaming behind her as she audaciously toys with the audience. Though the show opens up a crucial debate on the issue of typecasting in modern theatre, it is difficult to deny that she does make for an entrancing madwoman.
Aside from brief shreds of anecdotal dialogue, the show is first and foremost a recital of songs from other musicals. Luckily for us, we are in good hands. Salvi’s vocal skill and faultless technique is perfect for this type of music, and every line trails off to a luscious vibrato. A challenging set list means plenty of high notes to flatter her upper range, but it also leaves her dangling at the top for an uncomfortably large portion of the show. Now and again she dips into the lower ranges, but all too quickly defaults to an airy head voice which, at times, strays tonally into the Dolores Umbridge realm. Given that some notes could certainly have been hit using her chest voice, it would have been nice to hear that power a little more throughout the show.
As you might expect, humour plays a vital role in Mad Women In My Attic! While Salvi proves herself to be a comedic force of impressive aptitude, delivering cutting one-liners in a language other than her native Italian, the biggest laughs stem from the participation inflicted on a reluctant audience. To a number called ‘Masochism Tango’, Salvi at one point reigns in the help of a middle-aged man, who duly finds himself handcuffed, dragged out of his seat and handed a whip; imagination can decipher what was then done with said whip. Ferreri himself also becomes a mouse trapped between Salvi’s paws, his skilful accompaniment crassly interrupt by the Madwoman’s comical lusting in ‘My Psychopharmacologist and I’.
Salvi’s creation gives a critical voice to a character who is often painfully overlooked and the actors who are ruthlessly typecast. While explanation marks in titles usually make me wary, Mad Women In My Attic! pulls off an impressive feat by finding the balance between the serious issues and the gloriously insane.
Mad Women In My Attic! played The Other Palace on October 28 2017
Photo: Monica Salvi