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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Shakespeare’s Globe


  Sam Crane and Finty Williams/ Ph: Keith Pattison

The ribald spirit of William Hogarth is abroad in Nell Leyshon’s new play for Shakespeare’s Globe – the first ever to be written by a woman for this theatre, in either its original or its modern incarnations. The playwright was inspired and guided by extensive research conducted in the archives at today’s Bethlem Royal Hospital in Kent – the descendant of the first 14th century Bedlam, which was first located in Bishopsgate, and later moved to Moorfields and then to the site of what is now London’s Imperial War Museum. Leyshone has chosen to set her drama in the 18th century; "A Rake’s Progress," the painting series in which Hogarth depicts the syphilitic downfall of a young roisterer, and "Gin Lane," his famous image of drunken debachery, have had a demonstrable influence on the themes and plot. And there are sharp parallels with our own times here, too, from binge drinking in the street to rampant voyeurism, homelessness and financial ruination – the latter mirrored in Leyshon’s evocation of the notorious South Sea Bubble misadventure.
All of which should supply more than enough meat and gristle for a spicy theatrical stew. But though there is boisterous fun, occasional shocking detail of mistreatment and deprivation and a few odd moments of quieter poignancy in both Leyshon’s writing and Jessica Swale’s production, the first is lacking in depth and focus, while the second never cuts loose enough to match the wild mayhem of the play, so that the whole falls firmly between two stools.
Leyshon’s Bedlam is a family business run by dipsomaniac philanderer Dr Sidney Carew (Jason Baughan) and his doltish son Matthew (Joseph Timms). The inmates, corralled by Sophie Duval as tough-as-old-boots orderly Sal, include a man who thinks he’s a cow, a homicidal painter, a blethering sex pest and a woman stricken with grief following separation from her illegitimate child. A new arrival – May (Rose Leslie), a beautiful young country girl whose sailor lover has gone to sea – causes erotic excitement among patients and staff, as well as in the breast of a dandyish young poet (Sam Crane), who drops in for some entertainment on visitors’ day, when Bedlam is thrown upon to the paying public, who come to gawp at the inmates’ suffering. Meanwhile, Ella Smith’s buxom, raunchy gin seller struts through the streets dispensing liquid comfort, and May’s lover returns to search London for his lost, and by now more than a little unstable, sweetheart.
The author also introduces a voice of reason – Dr David Maynard (Phil Cheadle), Bedlam’s new governor, whose rather more progressive views on the care of “lunatics” hint at the future development of mental health care. There’s also a particularly affecting interlude in which the Narrator among a troupe of folk-singing Bedlamites – historically, released inmates who were licensed to bed and often eked out a living as street entertainers – wistfully recalls the comfortable life he led before he fell into illness and poverty. But none of the plotlines is properly pursued, and despite some eye-catching performances – notably from Baughan and Smith – Swale doesn’t embrace the play’s anarchy sufficiently, or imbue it with enough energy, to compensate for its lack of narrative precision. It’s all a little too clean and stagey – despite the decidedly salty lyrics of many of the traditional songs that pepper the action. Rich in possibility, but its substance and flavour remain elusive.


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