Shoreditch Town Hall, London – until 28 March 2018
Access All Areas’ Madhouse re:exit is a really, really ambitious show. An immersive production which travels through the tunnels, cellars and caverns underneath Shoreditch Town Hall, and tackles the stigma and ignorance around learning difficulties and disability. This is, by anybody’s standards, a big show.
We are led through the underground of the Town Hall, through the somewhat apocalyptic-utopian facilities of the so-called Paradise Fields care facility. Sandra, terrifyingly charming and crudely polite, is our guide through the ‘cutting edge of modern care’, showing off various ‘service users’, people with a variety of difficulties and disabilities. The tone is obvious in its satire and rage against a system which treats disabled people as children, idiots and a weight. The tour goes wrong and we see the underside of a cruel, abusive ‘care facility’ which tortures, mocks and violates the humanity of its users.
The show is essentially about five performers who entertain, mock and rage against the society around them. The purpose of each individual performance varies: Cian Murphy’s piece was the most blatantly political, criticising the Conservative government’s essential disregard for those less able. Dayo Koleosho’s interactive game touched on themes of agency, sex and mob aggression. Every performance explained, argued and addressed issues around the social treatment of people with difficulties and disabilities.
But that is ambitious. Lasting just under 2 hours, Madhouse re:exit set out to educate its audience – partly through an exhibition before the show and also during it – and represent people with disabilities as people with all the same needs as everyone else; criticise governmental policy; give a history of ‘long stay hospitals’; give a glimpse of what can be done and more and more. My first instinct is really just to remark how incredibly impressive it was that any show could be so ambitious and congratulate all those involved on the mammoth-size of their task. It really was incredible.
But maybe it was too much. It is very important for a show to decide who it’s audience is supposed to be. You can’t perform Shakespeare RSC-style to kids and expect it to do down well. Generally speaking, a marker of a good show is one that knows what it is and who it is for. I didn’t get the feeling that ‘Madhouse re:exit’ knew who its audience was. On the one hand, the audience was made up of many people who themselves had difficulties and disabilities. For them then, the message that people with disabilities should not be removed from society is one which need not be said. On the other hand, the show aimed to educate its audience, suggesting that it expected many to be unaware of such issues. But again, this felt like preaching to the choir as the audience of any show, particularly at Shoreditch Town Hall, is made up of people who probably identify themselves ‘on the Left’ and are largely educated and perhaps more socially aware than the show admits. On the other hand again, if it was made for the general theatre-going population, some of the political commentary was extremely simplistic and unadventurous.
I don’t think any of these criticisms is particularly important, however, because the overriding message and ethos of the whole production was one of inclusivity and positivity. So it would be off-tone to suggest that the show should cater for one particular person.
Artistic issues aside, there were some other problems. The pace of the show was very slow. Very slow. Immersive-promenade theatre has a novelty element that no other medium has because the audience never know where the show’s about to go next, let alone what’s about to happen. But the consequence of this is that we are always anticipating what will happen, and if the pace is not super fast, this can become boring. At several points, the audience were waiting for the next scene to begin. With such an ambitious project, it is perhaps unsurprising that it may have dragged at points.
I don’t really want to criticise ‘Madhouse re:exit’ because I don’t think it did anything wrong. Everything it did was done to the maximum effort, with total commitment from every performer and, despite the message of the play, the whole ethos of the evening was of positivity, inclusivity and optimism. The issues came from there being so much that smaller things became lost or ignored or under appreciated. I feel, perhaps, that the show would have worked better as a project to be toured around community centres, schools and libraries. Logistically, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way, but the tone and direction of the project might have fitted together better.
‘Madhouse re:exit’ is so many different things, it’s almost difficult to describe it cohesively. My conclusion, then, is to say to everyone- everyone- that you should go see it, because you’re guaranteed to find something made just for you.