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Head-Rot Holiday at The Cockpit – Review

Sarah Daniels
Directed by Bryn Williams
★★★
Pros: The strength of the play is in the three patients. By presenting individual stories it personalises the issue of mental health, which is otherwise too easy to ignore.
Cons: A tough watch but it wouldn’t be succeeding if it didn’t make you squirm and question the judgement and treatment of such issues.
Our Verdict: Written in the early 1990s it did feel a little dated. But maybe it makes for such uncomfortable viewing that you hope and pray it is outdated and that the system has improved.
Head-Rot Holiday was first performed in 1992. This was a special one-off performance by the Start Up Theatre Company for The Cockpit’s Arts of Wellbeing event. 
Courtesy of The Cockpit
The setting is a psychiatric ward and the play begins on a high note with the preparations for the Christmas disco. We follow the stories of three patients and the staff that care for them. Dee (Victoria Russell) is a cocky loud mouth who is shortly due to be assessed for release and is doing all she can to appear as normal as possible. This includes flirting with male patients at the party with disastrous results. Ruth (Lyndsey Gallagher) appears naïve and keeps lapsing into song lyrics. She allows men to physically abuse her and has become emotionally disconnected from her physical body. Claudia (Jade Tettey) was sectioned after attacking a social worker when she was told it would take longer than anticipated to reunite her with her children after they had been taken into temporary care.
We are introduced to the facility by following the induction of Sharon (Imogene Edwards), a new nurse. Through her we get the staff opinion of the patients and how they go about dealing with them. The team is headed up by Barbara (Chloe Wigmore). She is tough and unsympathetic in her rules and regulations. Is this in her nature? Has the job made her this way? Are there external influences at work? Then there is Jackie (Iulia Benze) who seems to be some kind of domestic support worker. Alongside Barbara she has seen it all and knows the patients and their idiosyncrasies all too well. 
We are led quite gently into the situation, learning about the characters through their interaction with each other. This is already taking place on stage as the audience enter and find their seats. We gradually get the picture filled in about each of the women and so learn about their stories. As the details emerge we shift our perceptions; we may begin by thinking these women seem ‘normal’, but the cracks appear soon enough and we see their damage.
The actors absorb you into their world and create a scenario so real that you can’t turn your head away or brush the issue under the carpet. It all works well except perhaps for the character of Jackie; she seems larger than life in comparison to the others and so tends to have a bigger impact which disrupts the general flow of the performance.
This is a tough play to watch at times. It has lighter, comic moments but it packs a hard punch from which there’s no escape. How do we define ‘sanity’ and who should have the responsibility of judging someone’s state of mind. Don’t we all have moments of madness? What is the best way of treating mental illness? Does familiarity blind staff to the underlying vulnerabilities of their charges? Is the ‘care’ on offer suitable or even helpful? And where is the line between sanity and madness?
Written in the early 1990s the theatre programme states that ‘times, terminology and practices in psychiatry have moved on.’ One can only hope the changes are for the better as this play shows how woefully inadequate and inappropriate the care was at the time of writing.
I left feeling a little shaken and counting my blessings. It makes you realise that we sometimes tread a fine mental line in this crazy world we live in and just how little it could take to find yourself on the wrong side of that line and in the mental health machine.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Head-Rot Holiday was a special one-night-only performance at The Cockpit Theatre on 15th November 2013.

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  • lottie

    what is the genre of this piece