In Steve Hennessy’s Lullabies of Broadmoor, a quartet of plays set in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this notorious establishment perhaps comes across as not being quite as horrific as one might imagine, especially for the privileged ‘gentleman’ patients. There was an annual ball, a theatre and an orchestra, and a certain amount of privacy with the luxury of a cell of one’s own filled with personal knick-knacks (represented by Ann Stiddard’s atmospheric design). One patient, a renowned scholar, is even allowed a penknife to cut the pages in his books.
Hennessy, who has a background working in mental health, wrote Wilderness, the last play presented in the sequence, in 2002 and was encouraged by Neil McPherson to write a second piece featuring another well-known Broadmoor patient who committed a murder that took place on the Finborough Road in 1922. The double bill was produced by the Finborough in 2004. The complete quartet (in which all roles are played by the same four actors) deals with five of the most colourful patients who were reprieved from hanging on the grounds of insanity, supervised by long-suffering middleman John Coleman, Principal Attendant of the Gentleman’s Block, armed with his surreptitious hipflask of brandy.
There’s a mechanical quality to the pre-show tableaux performed to brooding music as if on a loop. Prior to Venus at Broadmoor, a woman dressed in her corset and pantalettes powders her nose and mimes a waltz with an invisible partner, a man toys with a bag of sweets and another attempts to write a letter. Chris Loveless’s direction fully embraces the referential nature of Hennessy’s writing, creating some visually arresting set pieces.
The first in the sequence and the more recently written (and perhaps the weakest) is Venus at Broadmoor, dealing with the case of Christiana Edmunds, dubbed the ‘Chocolate-cream poisoner’ in 1870 after one of her randomly distributed poisoned chocolates killed a four-year-old boy on a day out in Brighton. This pathologically coquettish young woman (after being subjected to a traumatic description of death by strychnine, she changes the subject to the upcoming asylum ball as if she hasn’t heard a word of it) bewitches Coleman into abandoning all professionalism. The ‘Venus’ allusion feels rather laboured, making it difficult to become entirely immersed in the case.
Even more meta-theatrical (rather baffling so) is The Demon Box, paying homage to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Egyptian mythology. The murderer, the fairy painter Richard Dadd, who killed his father believing himself to have been guided by the Egyptian god Osiris, is given the job of re-decorating the Broadmoor theatre. During this painstaking process, he is visited by the airy spirit Ariel, raising questions about figments of the imagination and the dangers of ones that become too vivid.
The second double bill is more successful in integrating the cerebral and emotional aspects. The Murder Club is narrated by prostitute Olive Young, who was battered to death with a rolling pin by serial conman Ronald True. While she can make acerbic remarks about what she sees, she is helpless as her murderer charms and torments the other patients. Her final speech as she recounts her final moments, the opposite of the romanticised theatrical deaths that her negligent mother loved to weep over, is the most touching moment in which theatricality and emotionalism combine.
The final play in the quartet Wilderness, telling the story of Dr William Chester Minor (who also appears in The Demon Box) is possibly the strongest. Minor, a doctor, linguist, lexicologist (a significant contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary) and arguably a genius, had the dubious honour of being Broadmoor’s ‘show’ patient. He’s the only murderer to show any remorse for what he has done, his intense self- loathing leading to a gruesome denouement in his attempt to make amends. Damaged by his experiences as a surgeon in the American Civil War and a painful loss of innocence during his childhood in Ceylon, Minor moved to London and one evening shot George Merrett, a complete stranger, dead. When Coleman remarks about Minor’s extreme act of self-mutilation, “How many of us try that hard to be a better person?” one can’t help but agree.
If my energy began to flag somewhat, the impressively hardworking cast’s certainly didn’t. Chris Donnelley, the only actor playing the same character throughout, successfully communicates Coleman’s weariness and Violet Ryder is astonishing in all her roles: a flirtatious Christiana, a mercurial and vicious Ariel, a heartbreaking Olive Young and an earthy Eliza Merrett. Chris Bianchi is particularly skin crawling as the sleazily charming Ronald True, with the audacity to treat Coleman like a friend and manages to get away it, and Chris Courtenay gives an outstanding performance as Dr Minor, a fascinating character who deserves an entire production to himself.
Note: Both double bills can be seen consecutively on September 10th, 17th, 24th and October 1st.