at Shakespeare's Globe
They bake pizzas there now, where once the London beau monde queued to gawp at the Lunaticks in Bedlam.
The 18th century Moorfields premises on London Wall, where Nell Leyshon sets her scene, was the madhouse's second home; the hospital still exists, as the Royal Bethlem in Beckenham, and its archive was the inspiration for much of this exuberant piece of history, the second new play this Globe season, and the first ever by a woman to be staged in this space.
The themes are as familiar in Pizza Express as they were in Gin Lane: lovers parted, brutality, enlightenment, binge drinking and financial collapse. Even voyeuristic exploitation of the unfortunate is still with us.
The busy plot involves a rogue of a doctor, lecherous and cynical, a dangerous painter, an annoying poet, a farm girl, and many other Hogarthian grotesques, inmates and 'care-in-the-community' Bedlamites.
Jessica Swale sets the action on a stage expanded to a circle – more than a hint of the circus, with barred cages at the back. But, as in Shakespeare's day, we rely on the power of words to take us from dawn to darkness, from St Giles to Vauxhall. The groundlings in the yard are subjected to a fist-fight, piss-pots and lewd lechery; the scenes are linked and enlivened by street songs of the period, with a small folk band led by MD Mark Bousie on accordion.
The text is often richly poetical, with flights of madness and strings of synonyms, the longest a litany of euphemisms for “drunk”. There's noise and chaos, of course, with an effective Fellini-esque sequence in the Pleasure Gardens, but some wonderful stillness too, notably the soliloquy by Tom O'Bedlam [James Lailey] who's driven insane when the South Sea Bubble bursts, or the touching reunion of the poet's abandoned mistress [Lorna Stuart] with her child – a poignant puppet.
And a lovely scene at the end, when the progressive Governor [Phil Cheadle] and the Mad Doctor's saintly wife [a commanding performance from Barbara Marten] dawdle together in a halting meeting of souls.
Sam Crane made much of the insufferable poet, with Finty Williams impressive as his long-suffering Gardenia. The Doctor's dolt of a son, who succeeds him at the hospital, was given real depth amongst the laughs by Joseph Timms; Daon Broni's Billy finally rescues his mad May – a charming, vulnerable Rose Leslie. And chief among the grotesques, Ella Smith's “pudding-bag” of a gin-seller, peddling flavoured alcohol for the sweeter tooth.
Nell Leyshon says that the 21st century Bethlem patients wanted the play to be funny, and there were certainly laughs aplenty, even a pantomime “volunteer” from the crowd. But how uncomfortable should we feel, in the shoes of the Moorfields gawpers ? Or shocked by the casual misogyny ?
And is there a moral to this messy, merry tale of madness ? The best get married, confetti dancing in the air as the lunatics and the laity join in the traditional jig. The worst – the awful poet and Jason Baughan's Dr Carew, riddled with “the gentlemen's disease” - end up behind the bars of the new Bedlam: no alcohol, no music, no visitors …this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews