Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 2 July 2022
In 1887, investigative reporter Nellie Bly took on an assignment for the New York World. Her mission: to feign insanity and get herself committed to an asylum on Blackwell’s Island, then write an exposé about conditions in the institution. The resulting piece caused a sensation and made Bly famous, but also left her haunted by the women she had left behind – most of whom were just as sane as she herself was, and had been committed to the asylum, many of them permanently, for a variety of spurious reasons.
Douglas Baker’s highly technical adaptation of Bly’s book makes effective use of immersive sound and video, allowing us to not only hear the story but really live it. All the spoken audio and additional sound effects (Calum Perrin) are delivered through a set of headphones given to each audience member on arrival, thereby allowing for a more immediate experience of what’s happening on stage, and also giving us a sense of the isolation felt by Nellie and the other patients. Baker’s video projections add layers of depth to the spoken narrative, drawing us inside Nellie’s head and allowing us to see what she sees, although as the play goes on, whether what she and we are seeing is real becomes much less clear.
Though the story features many characters, only one is portrayed by an actor on stage – Nellie herself, played brilliantly by Lindsey Huebner. All other characters are present only as voiceovers, projections or, in the case of the other women in the asylum, as balloons. Huebner interacts effortlessly with them all, bringing the cast of characters vividly to life in an assured performance that’s instantly captivating.
This is particularly true in the later stages as Nellie – who knows and states repeatedly to both doctors and audience that she’s completely sane – begins to fall apart at the hands of those who are supposed to be making her better. Her impotent rage at the end of the play, when she realises her efforts will likely do nothing to end the plight of the women she’s met, is infectious – especially with the knowledge that even today, nearly 150 years later, women are still struggling to gain autonomy over our own bodies.
This powerful solo performance, when combined with the production’s immersive elements, makes for an intense 90 minutes that builds relentlessly in urgency, culminating finally in a movement sequence (directed by Matthew Coulton) that perfectly incapsulates Nellie’s helpless distress. Going in, it’s hard to know if the technical aspects of Baker’s production will feel gimmicky, but it quickly becomes evident that there’s no such danger; every part of the play has obviously been well thought through and when put together it all works extremely well. This is an innovative and effective piece of theatre that asks important questions and reveals unsettling truths. Well worth a visit.