Theatre is about stories and finding inventive ways to tell them, embracing the liveness of the art form for maximum effect. So it Goes Theatre‘s use of headphones, video projection, and live recordings certainly achieves that, bringing to life Nellie Bly’s Ten Days In A Madhouse at Jack Studio Theatre.
In 1887, Nellie Bly faked insanity to be committed to a New York asylum. Her aim was to expose the atrocious conditions and treatment of its patients. Douglas Baker’s adaptation invites us on Nellie’s journey as she struggles to be seen seriously as the investigative reporter she endeavours to be, through her days of repetition and trauma in the asylum, and as she experiences grief and regret in the aftermath.
The production’s storytelling is strong. The provided headphones offer quality sound directly to the audience’s ears – the clear transmission of the dialogue onstage, voiceovers, and other, often haunting, sound design by Calum Perrin. Sometimes we hear Nellie’s thoughts, which aren’t been spoken aloud onstage, only fed to us directly, giving the impression of being inside Nellie’s head.
Nellie’s characterisation as the protagonist is enhanced by Baker’s creative video projections that underscore the performance. Illustrated animations bring to life the world around Nellie and those she interacts with. These projections are captivating, allowing Nellie to be seen as the true focus of the story, aided by her being the only character portrayed by a performer onstage (Lindsey Huebner). Huebner interacts impressively with the other characters, who appear as projections, dolls, and balloons. As the story becomes more frenzied, Huebner navigates the action with confidence and conviction. Her portrayal of Nellie’s own mental wellbeing deteriorating was naturalistic, satisfying, and emotional.
At the end of the production, we are reminded again that Nellie’s story is true. Real faces are put to the names of women that have thus far been portrayed by balloons. This ending, whilst moving, could perhaps be more impactful if we had had the opportunity to engage with these women more throughout the performance. The play spends time building up to Nellie’s time in the asylum, some of which would perhaps be more usefully spent exploring Nellie’s developing relationships further. Additionally, although based on an established – and to some degree, known – story, the stage adaptation could have held more information back from the audience initially, as slightly more mystery surrounding Nellie’s fate, or tension, around her mistake with her alias, would have elevated the suspense.
The production has room for a more dynamic arc. Huebner’s naturalistic acting skills could be pushed further in the play’s more emotional moments to cause greater impact; however, as it currently is, the production is still polished and fluidly navigated.
The inventiveness of the storytelling – the delightful video projections, the immersive sound design, and the use of simple puppetry – makes this production original and highly engaging. From the welcoming staff at Jack Studio, to the overall quality of the performance, Ten Days in a Madhouse delivers a unique and enjoyable evening.
Original story by: Nellie Bly
Adapted and directed by: Douglas Baker
Lighting Design by: Jonathan Simpson
Sound Design by: Calum Perrin
Video Design by: Douglas Baker
Movement Direction by: Matthew Coulton
Produced by: Lucie Regan and So it Goes Theatre
Ten Days In A Madhouse plays at Jack Studio Theatre until 2 July. Further information and tickets here.