The Madwomen in the Attic

Wed 2nd – Sat 5th March 2016

reviews

Maddy Searle

at 01:27 on 3rd Mar 2016

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The Madwomen in the Attic is a play which subverts expectations, offers humour but also creates complex and believable characters. It follows five women who meet for group therapy once a week, each one’s role distinctive and beautifully drawn. Aoife Kennan’s script fizzes with witty references to the works of the Brontë sisters and the female characters they created. Kennan deftly pokes and prods at the tropes of Victorian literature, while also telling a very human story of women trying to deal with their pasts.

The performances are electric, each of the actors offering something very different to the group dynamic. Katurah Morrish plays Antonia, a patient in a psychiatric ward, brilliantly portraying her orgasmic extremes of emotion. From her languid movements to her sardonic delivery, everything Morrish does draws the audience’s attention. Claire Burchett offers a magnificent contrast as the group leader, Jane, perfectly embodying the well meaning but ineffectual facilitator. Julia Kass plays Helen, an artist with a young son. Her upright posture and even delivery fit perfectly with the character’s stiff-upper-lip attitude, but she also lets it slip at crucial moments to great effect. Amy Malone’s portrayal of Isabel, a pregnant 19 year old, also demonstrates the complexity of her character. Her monologue describing her troubled past relationship manages to convey the numbness that domestic violence can bring, while also hinting at the storm of emotions underneath. Grace, Antonia’s warden, is played by Olivia Gaunt, generally monosyllabic and distant, but suddenly bursts into song at intervals with sassy delivery and expert showmanship, providing a clever way of delineating the scenes.

The set is rather cramped, with five ill-matched chairs and two large whiteboards all gathered close together. But rather than detracting from the play, this simple arrangement forces the audience to focus on the most important aspect: the characters - how they sit, how they interact, how they feel. The whiteboards are also used to both comic and dramatic effect, for Jane’s unhelpful group exercises and for Antonia’s aggressive monologues.

At the end of the play, there is a feeling that there are a lot of things left unresolved. The women’s pasts cannot be erased, the damage cannot be undone. But this does not mean that watching the play is an unsatisfying experience, quite the contrary. The Madwomen in the Attic gives us a brief glimpse into the lives of women who have been, perhaps irreparably, damaged, and does so with humour and sensitivity.

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Katherine Ladd

at 10:00 on 3rd Mar 2016

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Dark, intense and gritty, watching Aoife Kennan’s ‘The Madwomen in the Attic’ feels like being grabbed by the throat and left reeling when it lets go. It’s hilarious and profoundly uncomfortable by turn, making for an unsettling hour but one filled with flashes of utter brilliance.

The plot follows five women who meet at a ‘Womens Aid’ group, ostensibly to talk through their struggles, but in reality to laugh about sex, tear down one another’s self-respect and give and receive macaroni valentines. Although we have an awareness of passing time, partly thanks to Olivia Gaunt’s compelling renditions of songs like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in between scenes, plot is very much secondary to characterization here: it is the gradual insight we gain into these women’s natures and backgrounds that lends the show its real flair.

There are some truly outstanding performances. Katurah Morrish excels from her opening speech and effectively captures Antonia’s mental instability in her rapid emotional shifts: she exercises a tremendous versatility of expression in her face and voice, infusing her body with mock sexual attraction, cradling a hobnob to croak ‘The body of Christ?’ or standing limply with eyes that plead exhaustion. Most of the time, playfulness and sarcasm drip through her every syllable. There’s a sense throughout the performance that the rest of the characters are playing her game, and, by the end, that the audience is too.

In the initial scenes I wonder if it will be entirely Morrish’s show, but as the play progresses there are moments of real vulnerability and beauty conjured by the other actresses, especially in an exchange about domestic abuse that takes place between Amy Malone (Isabel) and Julia Kass (Helen). Indeed, there is a real sense of ensemble throughout, and whilst each cast member pulls more than her weight in individual merit, it is the collective performance and subtle interchanges which hammer home that this is a play about ‘madwomen’ in the plural.

The lighting changes are minimal and the chairs only moved once during the performance, challenging the cast to retain audience engagement when most of the play is static. Although there are occasional moments in earlier scenes where the energy very slightly drops, it soon regains momentum to build in intensity until the final curtain. When it does fall, a rather large part of me wants to shout after the enthusiastic applause: ‘Wait. No. Come back!’

It’s an odd play, but the oddness works. One moment, the audience is giggling about a rather nasty yeast infection, the next crushed beneath the weight of Morrish’s hopeless observation: ‘We’re all alone, all together. All united - together in nothingness.’ The script is fantastic: Kennan takes what she likes from Bronte, then throws in Countryfile and thrush to produce something that deserves a title echoing Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist masterpiece.

As I head for the door after an hour well spent, I encounter a fellow audience member searching vainly for the Gents. He stops to nod and remark with slightly dazed eyes: ‘That was good.’ I’m inclined to agree.

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