The Divided Laing (Arcola)
Patrick Marmion's new play about experimental psychiatrist R.D. Laing opens at the Arcola
Set for the most part in Laing's experimental psychiatric commune in 1970, but with occasional forays into his drug-addled mind and into the future, Marmion's exhausting but intermittently very funny script uses the supporting cast as a sort of Greek chorus, alternately goading Laing or egging him on.
At times, the piece recalls Joe Orton. There is a brilliantly funny scene involving a local publican - played with deadpan hilarity by Kevin McMonagle - who is a first cousin to "Loot"'s Inspector Truscott. There's also echos of Peter Barnes's The Ruling Class in it's depiction of a hermetically sealed community of raging eccentrics coming under fire from external forces. Meanwhile Marmion's chorus speak in sub-Shakespearean verse: the tone of the play is all over the place. It also feels a little over-stuffed with ideas.
Alan Cox is a convincing Laing, he has a sardonic warmth, an exhausted vulnerability and is as troubled as many of his patients. Oscar Pearce, despite a poor attempt at a South African accent, is all dynamic swagger as David Cooper, an outrageous "anti-psychiatrist". Laura-Kate Gordon doubles impressively as a love-preaching, needy patient, artist Mary Barnes, and Laing's chilly, judgemental mother (who appears to him in an acid-induced fever dream). Kevin McMonagle is an absolute knockout in a variety of roles, including the aforementioned pub landlord and Laing's increasingly exasperated work colleague. Of all the actors, he most accurately finds the right sense of grim humour that this material seems to require.
Michael Kingsbury's lively production is entertaining, but fails to get the disparate elements of the script to fully coalesce: a running joke about Sean Connery coming for dinner genuinely has the audience rolling in the aisles, but a leatherclad actor running around on all fours with a gimp mask (a symbol of Laing's libido, of course!) has people scratching their heads in confusion. Designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen needs a mention for producing a phrenological head that can explode to order, if only to give the characters the opportunity to trot out laboured variations on the "let's fix Ronnie's head" gag.
"Blessed are the losers, misfits, psychotics, schizophrenics and people who cannot make sense of what is in front of them" says Laing in his touching final speech (exquisitely delivered by Cox). "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for what is right and simply cannot accept the way things are", and it is typical of this flashily inventive but ultimately unsatisfying play that the beautiful sentiments expressed at the end are almost immediately blown sky high by a joke pay-off. Highly watchable but frustrating.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes (including interval)
The Divided Laing runs at the Arcola Theatre until 12 December.