From the moment you are plunged into the Madhouse, you want to exit. But that is precisely the point. Access All Areas is proudly and defiantly other. It forces the audience to confront the reality of social care in our society, through voicing the experiences of those who have been silenced, stifled and forgotten.
The Madhouse does not exist conceptually on the stage; rather it fills the labyrinth of rooms that usually lie silent and discarded beneath Shoreditch Town Hall. The performance is not a play, but a tour, conducted by the hyper-modern establishment “Paradise Fields”. The tour leader, played with patronising comicality by Francesca Burgoyne, reeks of artificiality, the patients or “service users”, as they are now called, swiftly hijack it due to the home’s dehumanising transition from human aid to computers. The audience, consisting of roughly 15 intrigued faces, are led astray from the polished pink walls of the reception area down into the depths of the care home.
Director Nick Llewellyn conjures a narrative from the legacy of Mable Cooper, a disabled rights activist who fought for change at the end of the twentieth century. Five disabled actors constitute this exploration into the raw, uncomfortable truth; each stage is an individually isolated exposition through dance and dialogue, provocatively posing unanswered questions.
Audience participation is obligatory. In one particularly disturbing interaction, a slot machine supplies you with a syringe filled with mushy peas. Anyone brave enough is then instructed to fire them into the mouth of “The Eater” (played by Dayo Emmanuel), who is held rigid in a strait jacket, just managing to hauntingly encourage the process with the occasional jerky shriek. This grotesque parody is immensely powerful in its fragile self-awareness, as it delicately blends its game-like nature with a deeper sense of painful sincerity.
A vast array of mediums are incorporated: distorted clips from the rebel Patient 36 are interspersed between ominous voice recordings of “follow of the money”, satanically luring you deeper into the heart of the matter.
This piece, best described as theatre activism, is steeped in politics. References to Theresa May’s neglect of those in need are sprinkled throughout the performance like poisonous arrows. Immensely striking in its overall composition, some functional elements slightly compromise its coherence. It occasionally lacks a convincingly fluid narrative, one that is required to structure the plot development. But this is almost necessary for the ultimate point of the play, as its purpose dwells more in the political realm, that the artistic one.
The actor’s loud, proud and shameless commitment to presenting the stigma, trauma and pain they are, have been, and will continue to be subjected to is a gesture of empowerment; empowering not just for the actors, but for all those living with disabilities.
MADHOUSE re:exit is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall until 28 March
Photo: Helen Murray