It’s my first visit to the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park and I’m delighted to find a bright modern refuge in the now dark autumn streets of N4. Importantly, it also has a fabulous cafe and although there’s no time for food, I have a few minutes to admire its cool interior, resplendent with vintage books suspended from the ceiling. With a quick dash from parents’ evening, no time to eat and a gnawing knot from hunger, I’m not method acting but method reviewing for tonight’s not so paltry culinary delights. The studio theatre that is Park90 lends itself perfectly to Digital Drama’s Fast with its cramped, intoxicating and intimidating atmosphere.
Prepare to be unsettled. It’s 1910 and making the front page of the Seattle newspapers is Dr Linda Burfield Hazzard, an unqualified doctor who has been questioned but cleared of the deaths of patients at her sanatorium, Wilderness Heights. She’s therefore free to continue her work. A jolly old projected film begins the proceedings: ‘Welcome to Ollala!’ but soon there’s a glitch and the haunting, bulging and downright disturbing eyes of Caroline Lawrie appear as the manic moc-doc. Already, I’m seriously contemplating reaching out for a stranger’s arm next to me.
Based on a true story (always an added bonus to ramp up the chill factor), Hazzard was in search of the perfect cure for any ailment, even cancer, although her methods were decidedly dubious to say the least. She believed extreme fasting was the cure for all; ‘Death from starvation cannot take place in a fast when organic disease is absent’ (Linda Burfield Hazzard, Fasting for the Cure of Disease, 1912). Was she genuinely well meaning? Or was she a psychopath?
Soon we meet two orphaned English heiresses, travelling unaccompanied. The impressionable dreamer Clare, played exquisitely by Jordan Stevens and the practical and somewhat cynical sibling Dora, charismatically portrayed by Natasha Cowley. The two are conversing about their seemingly minor ailments when they happen upon an article about Dr Hazzard’s spa for wellness. Led by Clare’s thirst for a tonic, the girls head deep into the country seeking the promised euphoria of good health – a timeless pursuit for most of us. The modern parallels are pretty clear. Once ensconced, there follows a disturbing set of events which leave me quite breathless. But the thrill of the chills in live theatre simply cannot be beaten – or missed. Although the sisters are unaware of Hazzard’s questionable reputation, Horace R Cayton Sr. and his son (Daniel Norford) from the Seattle Republican newspaper are scrutinizing her every move and are never far behind the proceedings.
The set is stark. There’s the classic upstage presence of a drawn shower curtain which looms throughout, slide out tables, then beds and stark, ripped white sheets hanging like storm damaged sails from the ceiling. Regularly the ‘Dr’ clicks her fingers and lights cut with that resounding clang like the electricity to the whole building has shut down. Sound plays an equally strong role in increasing the unease, especially with the eerie effect of the rolling drums.
With masterful direction, a fantastic script and just 80 minutes long (I could’ve easily enjoyed more) with no interval, this disconcerting slice of history makes a fantastic thriller. Finally, the only thing I hungered for was safe passage back to the station and hope that I’d manage some sleep.
Written by: Kate Barton
Directed by: Kate Valentine
Producer: Alison Ramsey
Box Office: 02078706876
Booking Link: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/fast
Booking until: 9 November2019