“Back then there was no such thing as mental health,” says Bobby, a young man painting a wall in Una McKevitt and PJ Gallagher’s new play about psychosis. It’s a solemn reminder that, until just recently, psychological disorder was simply eccentric.
Gallagher puts his childhood at the centre of this comedy, which involves an astonishing health board scheme that housed mental health patients with unrelated families. Bobby (Barry Kinsella) moans with annoyance as his mother (Katherine Lynch) accepts another client into their house.
Bobby, face-front and reminiscent in Kinsella’s well-judged performance, may be like any other character from Una McKevitt’s documentary plays but director Cathal Cleary’s production yearns for unreal displays. For starters: their home, under reconstruction in Cillian McNamara’s set design, is stalked by a gorilla (Cyle Conley).
Lynch creates a nicely agitated mother, tirelessly rummaging through charity shop clothes, administering pills and cutting hair. She may erupt with the heavy gestures of a broad comedy but the production sometimes holds her with reverence and awe. (“Like a witch making a broth,” observes Bobby).
There is some smart comedy here in how psychological delusions go un-judged and made part of ordinary life. One client barks like a dog, another lives with paranoia, there’s one who’s addicted to water. Most impressively, the script ushers in less obvious forms of estrangement. Bobby is reminded he’s adopted and out of place. His father has a concerning relationship with alcohol. In this not-so-distant past, no one’s emotional wellbeing is seen to.
The problem is that the script struggles to contain all of these out-of-control forces. Much of Bobby’s alienation depends on the introduction of various aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, and their relating anecdotes. The comedy soon resembles an overcrowded asylum.
Intriguingly, the production will lean into such babel. As the stress culminates with one client’s attempted suicide, and the inset of Bobby’s own depression, Cleary makes a hallucination real and sends one figure shuddering under a table, resembling a patient hiding from an orderly.
The play seems to be saying that despite its good intentions, the health board scheme unfortunately exacerbated problems. There’s something interesting, then, in Bobby’s diligent mother having to come to terms with the unorthodox running of her house, but that gets lost in the crowd.
Madhouse is on until 22 September 2018 at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.