19/11/09, Jackson's Lane Theatre.
70 mins. A devised piece about women committed to mental institutions on "moral" grounds. Sounds grim but turned out to be enthralling, poignant and moving, sometimes funny and beautifully staged. All that and Glenn Miller too.
Architecting's TEAM should see this show and learn a thing or two, notably that less is often more when it's as well done as this. There was relatively little text and all the scenes were tied tightly into the central themes -- the women's past lives and the humiliations and unfairness involved in their incarceration.
Red Cape are Claire Coache, Cassie Friend and Rebecca Loukes, who met studying drama at Lancaster University 16 years ago and have recently joined forces. They won a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 2008 and you can see why. Unusually this was a classic fringe show that transferred successfully to a non-Edinburgh venue. (Jackson's Lane is a rectangular box with a steep rake and good sightlines and acoustics).
Let's also hear it for whoever (uncredited) did the sound design: a succession of 80s pop tracks, Glenn Miller tunes and atmospheric asylum sounds which ran throughout. The only problem: it came from two speakers very widely separated on either side of the auditorium which made the stereo sometimes unnerving.
Set in a hair salon in a 1980s asylum. Three women, dressed in white (waisted smock/dresses doubling as nurses' uniforms and inmates' shifts). One, clearly deeply troubled, never speaks. She produces pebbles from her mouth, apparently vomiting up half a dozen. She's bathed by two brusque and bored nurses on arrival. She weeps in bed. She eventually wanders outside to die in the rain.
A second, Joy, took up with a black GI after her husband was killed in World War Two, and went off the rails when he left for D-Day. She was forcibly committed by her mother-in-law (hints of racism here?).
A third was raped by her piano teacher, became pregnant, had her baby taken from her, and was committed.
There was much use of white towels. Three were spread out downstage in rectangular pools of dazzling light to represent beds. One was held by the nurses to preserve the bather's modesty. They were used to mop up the spill when the third girl wet herself trying and failing to do the moves to the Chicken Song at a "dance". Water featured a lot too, often in conjunction with the towels, most strikingly when a towel dipped in a pail of water was stretched and wrung out to represent rain over the body of the first woman.
Much of the action was silent, mimed to some of Glenn Miller's most familiar but slowest tracks. The dialogue was almost all monologue, addressed straight to the audience. Highlights included the scene in a cinema (three women side by side in salon chairs facing the audience, a pair of shoes in a fourth chair representing the GI at whom Joy first makes eyes, then more intimate contact).
At the end Joy daubed one leg and one arm and then her face with black body colour to represent the GI with whom she danced: it didn't entirely come off as a conceit, but when her face was wiped clean at the end, with her arms held in a straitjacket, she looked truly wild and mad.
Much of the time the three stood or sat together in a row facing the audience. At the beginning they came on with their long hair combed forward over their faces, as if they stood with their backs to us. At the end it was combed back: faceless, anonymous victims.