Pros: The spooky atmosphere, which immerses the audience into a fantastically dark reality. Screams, whispers, shadows and mental patients in straightjackets all around!
Cons: The stories and the organisation could do with further elaboration for large audiences. Sometimes difficult to see what is going on.
The Players Lab is an Original Platform for New Writing and Site Specific Entertainment running as part of the Winter Shuffle Festival 2013, in Mile End. Using St. Clements Hospital as inspiration and backdrop the, theatrical company Planktonic Players have written four original pieces of new writing about mental health in form of immersive theatre.
The Shuffle Festival is organized in East London, with Bow Road or Mile End as the closest stations. I didn’t know much about the area or St. Clements, so wandering around trying to find the place (Google Maps were rather unhelpful…), I approached a jogger and asked him where I could find the hospital. He asked if I meant the old mental hospital. I was completely unaware of the history of the building until then, and after pointing out directions, he looked at me curiously and said “I’d be very worried about you if it hadn’t been closed for years“. Feeling like a character in one of the Final Destination movies, I headed to the building. After being asked for the password and walking through a pitch-dark alleyway, I reached the back of the hospital. At this point running into Freddy Krueger wouldn’t have been a surprise at all.
Once inside, a woman came up to the group and explained a little about mental health, the history of the place and the work done in St Clements. It seemed we were getting ready to take a tour of the venue, but then nurses in 1800s costumes, with period lamps obscuring their faces, came out and lead the way. We were taken to different rooms (each one portraying a story about a patient), up and down staircases and into doctor’s consultation rooms. Throughout, sounds of screams, water dropping and whispers filtered through. There were actors in straightjackets looking down from the top of the stairs, and we passed rooms with nothing but monitors inside, or simply painted completely black. The atmosphere was absolutely fantastic, I was having a blast. We were then led outside to the nurses’ area, this time with a fire burning and an old clock tower looking down… very spooky.
The four pieces of new writing juxtaposed stories of patients from when the hospital was opened in the late 1800s. For example, one story dealt with a woman with sexual repression or hysteria, but with modern perspectives on mental issues also addressed, such as a eating disorders. Unfortunately the group was too large, and sometimes people were unable to enter the rooms where scenes were happening. In my case, I missed a story completely from being placed on the wrong side of the staircase by lack of space.
All in all I liked it. This being my first immersive theatre experience, I found it helpful to have the ‘nurses’ lead the way around. Even when I couldn’t quite make out what was happening from the back of the group, there was always someone in character around maintaining the atmosphere. Although the stories could do with further work, Planktonic did a great job at creating this spooky alternate reality. There were rwelve actors in total, Michael Billington, Ed Cooper Clarke and Davey Kelleher to name a few, always changing costumes and characters, switching from mental patients to doctors to nurses, doing a great job at transporting the audience. The play itself was only around an hour long, and with a little Christmas tent to grab some mulled wine at the end, it’s the perfect treat for a chilly December night!
Authors: Thomas Massey, Tony Hickson, Sally Lewis, Kate Gilbert,
Directors: Tor Kristoffersen, Stephen Myott-Meadows, Chris Hosking, Sarah Meadows
More Information: www.planktonicplayers.com and www.shufflefestival.com
Booking Until: 15th December 2013