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10 Days in a Madhouse (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Ten Days in a Madhouse

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: Jack Studio Theatre

Credits: by Nellie Bly adapted by Douglas Baker, produced by So it Goes Theatre

Ten Days in a Madhouse 4 stars

Photos: Davor @The Ocular Creative

This is one of those shows which – with originality and flair – knocks you between the eyes with a profoundly disturbing true story.

Nelly Bly (1864-1922) was an American journalist who, at a time when women weren’t taken seriously in the press, went under cover and got herself admitted to the Blackwell Asylum in order to write an exposé for The New York World. She discovered, experienced and wrote about hideous  abuse, violence and neglect. Baker’s play is largely based on her own words.

It’s a one woman show in which Lindsey Huebner is terrific as Nelly Bly. She is initially persuasive and articulate as she negotiates the commission. Once in the asylum we see her sympathy for other patients many of whom shouldn’t be there, as well as her own suffering because she too is treated with cruelty and violence – all along fearing that her newspaper editor will forget her and fail to rescue her from this “place of horror”. It’s a beautifully judged performance.

But in a sense the real stars of this show are the lighting designer, Jonathan Simpson, the sound designer Calum Perrin and the playwright/director Douglas Baker who also designed the video sequences. Audience members wear headphones so that we can hear the voices of the other characters who are evoked by cartoons, big slidey puppets projected onto a gauzy screen in front of the action or by helium balloons attached to shoes. As Bly becomes more and more disturbed – especially during the waterboarding sequence – so the projections become wilder and the sound track more broken so that we really do share what she is experiencing as if we are inside her head and body.

The important point being made is that if you treat anyone (women in this case) like this it won’t be long before they lose their minds even if they were perfectly well when they were mistakenly admitted – or dumped there by family members. Soon “insanity affects the personality” as Bly puts it.

Finally at the end comes a quiet, sober, shattering final five minutes in which Huebner comes in front of the screen so that we see her clearly – like bringing a camera into focus – for the first time as she speaks powerfully as Nelly, who campaigned on mental health issues for the rest of her life. And then, in silence, come the photographs of some of the women incarcerated at Blackwell Asylum which remained open for a further seven years and, although Nelly’s piece triggered an enquiry no one ever took responsibility.

It’s one of those shows at the end of which applause feels crassly inappropriate although of course you clap like mad because everyone involved has done such a good job. You then leave the theatre thinking very hard about what you’ve seen – always an indicator of something special.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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