As I wait for the curtain to rise, vivid images of Ken Stott and David Tennant loiter about the back of my mind like two delinquent teenagers chucked out of a party. But I won’t be bullied. Despite their presence I force my attention on the here and now. This is not a DVD of the 1995 television drama of Donna Franceschild’s Takin’ Over the Asylum I’m about to watch - it’s the brand new stage version of the story. As the lights dim and Arthur Conley blasts out “Do You Like Good Music?” Messrs Stott and Tennant fold their arms and impatiently tap their feet as if to say, “Who are these guys?”
Franceschild has taken on the massive and courageous challenge of condensing six hours of first class telly into just over two hours of live theatre. One question: will the essence of the original television production transfer to the relative restrictions of the stage and survive as a stand alone play? I’m sure Franceschild, along with a very able cast and all the collective talents of director Mark Thomas, assistant director Caro Donald, designer Alex Lowde and lightning designer Chris Davey will work in cahoots to make sure it does.
The set is a cleverly constructed recreation of a hospital ward dayroom; harsh, stark, white strip lights work well to make sure nothing is comfortable while lank, dreary curtains mask a large, rain splattered window. Various people sit around on metal framed chairs worshipping at the altar of the early evening telly soap schedules. However, this isn’t just any ward in any hospital. It’s a locked ward in St. Jude’s – a hospital for those with mental health issues - or loonies as the inmates are proud to call themselves. Some steps and a rail at the front of the stage provide an outside area but it’s a messy, disused cubicle situated in the corner which becomes the focus of the main action. This is St Jude’s Hospital Radio Station
The main theme of identity and the very fine line between loonydom and sanity is addressed immediately. When struggling DJ Ready Eddie McKenna (Iain Robertson) arrives to try and breathe new life into the hospital radio station he’s given a tour of the ward by Campbell Bain (Brian Vernel). As Bain waxes lyrical McKenna believes him to be a nursing assistant – until Campbell takes his place in a crowded line for his medication. While Stott is a hard act to follow, Robertson slots into the role well but it’s Vernal who shines. He takes Tennant’s role and plays Campbell complete with all his optimistic, bipolar gloriousness. He reclaims the word ‘loony’, revels in it at every opportunity and almost makes it sound politically correct.
Oh oh, I can hear shuffling of feet. My imaginary Stott and Tennant are looking worried. Robertson and Vernel are beginning to assert themselves as the new owners of the roles.
The rest of the cast also inhabit the various characters with great ease. Caroline Patterson and Helen Mallon play Rosalie and Francine; ordinary women so victimised and badly damaged by family and the normal world they’ve ended up in St Jude’s to be mended. Meek and mild compulsive Hector and ‘genius’ graduate Fergus are given the right amount of unanimated life by Gregor Firth and Grant O’Rourke. Sane hospital administrator Evelyn and pseudo-sadistic hospital assistant Stuart are played expertly by Molly Innes and Martin McCormick. They walk the shaky tightrope of everyday life in a mental hospital with only spread sheets, clipboards and impressive bunch of keys to remind them of which side of the rope they should fall. The in-patient and nursing staff numbers are bolstered very ably by Gayle Madine, Lucy Hollis, Aaron Jones and Scott McKay.
Music features hugely in this production. But it’s not just any music – it’s soul music - happy and sad at times, but always life affirming soul music. Cleverly chosen titles such as “Rescue Me” by Aretha Franklin, “Set Me Free” by The Supremes and Otis Redding’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Try a Little Tenderness” frame the scenes, punctuate the action and work well with a warm, witty and sympathetic script to create an uplifting atmosphere. However, there’s always a spoke in the works. Despite the radio station being a resounding success a dark shadow in the shape of “space re-allocation” comes into view and a battle royal begins.
To answer my earlier question, Franceschild has indeed been successful in transferring the show from screen to stage. All the elements were there – great writing, good music, a collection of fabulous characters facing unenviable challenges and a well structured story.
What about my imaginary Stott and Tennant? I wonder what they thought. I close my eyes and search my mind.
They are nowhere to be seen.
Takin' Over the Asylum is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until 9 March, 2013.