Nell Leyshon made history last week (9 September 2010, previews from 5 September) by becoming the first female playwright to have a work staged at Shakespeare's Globe, in either its old or new incarnations.
Her play is Bedlam, which continues in rep until 1 October and presents a fictional portrayal of a London hospital for the insane.
Set in 18th-century London against an anarchic backdrop of binge drinkers, gin sellers and ballad singers the production promises "dance and song with scenes of lust, violence and absurd comedy."
Jessica Swale directs a cast including Whatsonstage.com Award nominee Ella Smith (Phyllis), Sam Crane (Laurence), Barbara Marten (Annabel), Finty Williams (Gardenia), Rose Leslie (May), Danny Lee Wynter (Oliver) and Jade Williams (Nancy).
So did critics go mad for this theatrical milestone?
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - "There’s none of the disturbing, outlandish theatricality of the Marat/Sade about Nell Leyshon’s perfectly enjoyable, simple scenario, nor too much wackiness or ferocity along the lines of Ken Campbell’s long ago The Madness Museum on television ... Instead, Jessica Swale’s tasteful staging on a bare boards setting is decked out with ballads and old songs ... Treatments have progressed from roast mice and exorcism to laxatives and leeches, but a happy conclusion – and signature Globe company hoe-down – is ensured once the liberal- minded governor (Phil Cheadle) gets the message and adds compassion to the list of prescriptions."
Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) - “Leyshon has previously been noted for delicately devastating small-scale pieces. With Bedlam, though, she goes for broke in the opposite direction, turning the Globe into a chaotic madhouse and filling it with slapstick energy and blackly gleeful exuberance ... Watching Jessica Swale's rambunctious production, which is ebulliently performed by a delightful company, I was frequently assailed by a sense of incongruity: a play that deals with the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill is in constant danger of lapsing into an upbeat crowd-pleaser ... The gin-sodden Hogarthian background is beautifully conveyed ... But the determined, high-spirited foolery has a sanitising, feelgood effect. As with the contents of those bedpans that are cheerily emptied over the punters in the yard, you can't quite believe that any of this is real.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - "Nell Leyshon has written poignantly about country life in plays such as Comfort Me With Apples and Glass Eels. But her new commissioned piece, though not without historical interest, offers a strangely sanitised view of London's notorious 18th-century asylum for the insane. You feel that Leyshon, in providing scope for song and dance and sentimental romance, has almost too conscientiously come up with a Globe crowdpleaser ... The play is at its best when Leyshon focuses, all too briefly, on attitudes to mental health problems ... Even director Jessica Swale underplays the noise and squalor of the period. And it strikes me as crass to invite an audience member to come on stage for a bit of token madhouse humiliation."
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - "To write a play about the notorious Bethlehem lunatic asylum in London, where the patients were treated with often horrific cruelty and the fashionable used to visit to gawp at their antics and distress, is an enterprise fraught with difficulty ... Leyshon, best known for her small-scale, deeply felt plays about rural life, charts a middle course with skill and sensitivity ... Jessica Swale directs a lively production, with a host of winning performances and a terrific selection of popular songs from the period, including one spectacularly filthy ditty that reaches a truly riotous climax ... It’s a winning, good-hearted evening, but one does leave wondering whether a play about madness, cruelty and suffering should be quite as much fun as this."
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “One expects drama set in an asylum - where beatings are frequent and ailments are treated with leeches - to be gruesome but Leyshon has accentuated the comic side of confinement ... It’s chaotic, rambunctious and at times saucily amusing. Jessica Swale’s production strives hard to involve the audience: groundlings may well find themselves spattered with various fluids (all, of course, just water), and the space is well exploited ... Greater problems lie in the material. Although Leyshon has crafted some nice lines, there’s little to engage us closely ... In treating madness largely as a spectacle, it ends up as a sprawling creation which fails to illuminate the mind’s dark spaces.”
Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail
(three stars) – "Madness ... also needs method on stage.
Nell Leyshon’s sprawling play about the 18th-century
‘Bedlam’ asylum pulls in too many directions ...
There are bawdy drinking songs, horror at the practice of applying
‘mustard blisters’ to patients after a cold bath and
some philosophical reflection. But the action remains at the level of
busy spectacle without a strong story to draw you in. It’s
high-spirited, however, with sharp work from Finty Williams as a bossy
society gal, and Ella Smith deliciously lives up to her description
as ‘a sauce box’.”