Access All Areas’ Madhouse re: exit – groundbreaking immersive theatre

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Access All Areas’ Madhouse re:exit is a tantalisingly inventive immersive theatre experience that speaks as much about the reality of our flawed care system as it does the societal perceptions of people who are learning disabled; pointing to ways in which we can restructure ourselves for the better. It plays Shoreditch Town Hall 13-28 March. Review by James Zatka-Haas.

A glossy corprorate waiting room

The waiting room in Madhouse re: exit. Photograph: Helen Murray.

With a name like Madhouse, it’s easy to imagine the exercising of every overused horror trope and cliched definition of ‘madness’ for anything-other-than-honest purposes. In the shadow of Hollywood (ergo mainstream society) that has largely been the case. Learning disabled people have become synonymous with straight jackets and psychiatric units; people ‘in need of care’ and not individuals with voices and agency. Access All Areas’ new production ‘MADHOUSE re:exit’ looks to address that, and the outcome is quite simply groundbreaking.

Using Haperbury Hospital as a point of origin, and the legacy of campaigner Mabel Cooper as inspiration, ‘Madhouse’ is an immersive tour around Paradise Fields; a fictional ‘state of the art’ care facility that hides some horrific practices under its glossy cooperate skin.

The tour begins in Paradise’s customer waiting area, an emotionally void space drenched in benign PR advertising, sickly pink and green coloured walls and seats familiar to anyone who’s spent time in an out-of-town GP’s office. On a television screen, an equally benign corporate rep waxes lyrical about the services on offer whilst we, the audience, sit there wondering just what we’ve got ourselves in for.

Two people in a pink room

Madhouse re: exit. Photograph: Helen Murray.

Enter Sandra, Paradise Field’s Operation Manager and our tour guide for the duration. Striding in, she goes through the introductory spiel, repeats the corporate dross, then asks us to stand in a line and reorder ourselves by shoe size. Shoes, we later find, are the symbolic underpinning of Madhouse, illustrating both the lack of escape routes for the patients and, on a pertinent level, the very acquisition of their identities.

We were then split from our guide – for reasons that could admittedly have been clearer – and introduced to the patients and their particular stories: escapee ‘Number 36’; feathered dancer ‘The Bird’; Olmec Tribe’s ‘The Goddess’; and a fact dropping ‘Baby.’ Each act explored the problems inherent in our care system from a different perspective, using a  combination of music, dance installation and dialogue to explore the topic to full effect.

A memorable sequence had us shooting peas at ‘The Eater’, a patient whose name refers to the ‘useless eaters’ – a derogatory term historically used to describe those with learning disabilities. During the scene, actor Dayo Kolesho appeared straight jacketed behind a glass screen with a gag in his mouth, and we were presented with different ‘weapons’ to shoot him with.

Woman dancing in front of neon lights

Madhouse re: exit. Photograph: Helen Murray.

The scene created feelings of unease amongst the group, and many of us were reluctant to engage. The sense of absurdity was palpable, yet underneath it pointed towards the humiliation that these patients were subjected to in the past. It was a harrowingly disturbing scene, but in the context of Madhouse, its presence felt apt.

Given the scale of the work, a few technical hiccups were bound to occur, and some audio and visual cues broke down; ultimately making parts of the narrative hard to follow. But overall these were minor faults and could either be ignored or, given Pardise’s paper thin functionality, given theatrical significance.

The scenes involving the learning disabled cast were written by the actors (with some dramatological assistance), a master stroke that imbued the tour with an authenticity it would have otherwise only been alluding to. It made for a show whose political message was clear from the start, namely that people who are learning disabled have been misrepresented in our society, and it’s about bloody time we looked to change that. MADHOUSE sets a new standard for immersive theatre. Go and experience it.

Madhouse re:exit is on at Shoreditch Town Hall until 28 March. A BSL-interpreted performance is on 26 March.