Hope Theatre, London – until 22 December 2018
Author Sarah Daniels has a strong record for writing plays about the hidden history of women – stories that are seldom told, but still resonate with today. In Head-rot Holiday (which is directed by Will Maynard) we’re privy to the goings-on in Penwell Special Hospital (‘Head-rot Hotel’) – a psychiatric prison for women in the early 1990s. As they make preparations for the festive season, we see how this might make a difference to the atmosphere (or not…) as the Christmas disco approaches.
Three actors play three very different roles, which from a logistical standpoint and for the actors concerned, require them to be on top of their game. The play begins with the arrival of Sharon (Evlyne Oyedokun) – the new nurse at the hospital. She’s worked at other psychiatric wards before, but never anywhere quite like ‘Head-rot’. In charge of the ward is Barbara (Emily Tucker) whose husband also works at the hospital. Another seasoned nurse present is Jackie (Amy McAllister) who certainly doesn’t view the patients on friendly terms. Through Sharon’s eyes, we have an unjaded perspective on what goes on there and as well as having a generally positive outlook, see how she puts up with the constant, not-so-subtle referencing to being ‘different’.
Daniels opens up the discussion about why the patients are kept there and what exactly for. In the case of Claudia (Oyedokun), she made the ‘mistake’ of telling her GP about her depression. This led to her notes to being passed to the authorities and her child taken away from her. This, of course, exacerbates her symptoms, and so the system perpetuates the cycle of poor mental health and psychological abuse.
For characters like Dee (McAllister), she sees the disco as a way of convincing the powers-that-be that she’s on the mend and should be considered for release. However, her natural sarcasm is seen as ‘unhelpful’ and self-defeating, which understandably angers her. In the case of Ruth, her episodes of lucidity come and go, but the fact that she ‘likes men’ and male sex offenders will be at the same disco puts her in a vulnerable position…
As in any environment, there are clashes of personalities between patients and staff, and between the patients themselves. There’s also the ‘problem’ on the ward of violence taking place. Nobody owns up to it, but officially the blame is put on other patients… For all the characters, their ‘home life’ (past and present) is a major factor in why they behave they do and in the case of the staff, their character arcs have a major influence on accountability in ‘the system’.
Because of the intimacy of the play’s staging, the audience are more than passive observers and may find themselves referred to by another character’s name. Far from being relentlessly bleak, there’s plenty of black humour – especially from the patients. For them (when they’re not angry or anxious) they have to laugh to keep from crying…
It goes without saying that there are strong performances from all the actors and Head-rot shines a light on mental health care. Seeing the way some of the staff behave in the play, one realises that ‘sanity’ is in the eye of the behlolder and history has shown repeatedly that the ‘rebellious’ and ‘independently-minded’ are often branded as ‘unsound of mind’. As Head-rot shows, to be sectioned in practical terms is a worse fate than imprisoment for a crime. Being sectioned not only has the stigma, it gives the powers-that-be carte blanche authority to keep people indefinitely…
© Michael Davis 2018
Head-rot Holiday runs at Hope Theatre until 22nd December.
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