Review: ★★★★ Madhouse re:exit, Shoreditch Town Hall

There are shows that gain even more significance in hindsight, because certain parts suddenly make more sense, or a backstory adds a new dimension to the performance. MADHOUSE re:exit is one of those plays, and a very important one at that.

Set in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, Madhouse re:exit takes its audience on a tour through the premises of corporate care facility ‘Paradise Fields’: “the revolution in social care”. Clutched in our hands are crisp-looking information booklets, and we are being – rather patronisingly – sweet-talked to by a woman in pink who looks just as crisp, and smiles way too much. What starts in a clean, brightly lit room with polished videos on tv screens, ends up as a rollercoaster ride along different scenes in sharply contrasting spaces, as we are steered away from the propaganda tour by an array of people who are all called ‘patient 36’.

Gradually, we learn about the institutionalisation of people with learning disabilities throughout time. Five artists who have first-hand experience of this disability present scenes inspired by research they have undertaken with Access All Areas, the company behind the piece. Whether a caged bird, a 27-year-old baby, or a ‘useless eater’: they all seem to symbolise something that is wrong with society’s treatment of people with disabilities.

The political undertones are, expectedly, strong, but they never become the focus of the play. Although the word ‘austerity’ seems to hang in the air, and several references are made to money, ‘the most needy’ and even tax havens, in essence, this work is about people and their experiences. No expenses were spared to convey these, sometimes dehumanising, experiences. MADHOUSE re:exit was created by a very elaborate team, and this is evident. Each room we enter is a set of its own, often with nifty technical devices and audio-visual effects creating an interactive scene.

The acting is smooth, with members of the cast constantly dropping in and out to escort us on our journey, which goes back and forth between the eerily perfect ‘Paradise Fields’ clinic and the smoky, dark rooms where patient 36 resides. Some of the scenes drag on too long, unfortunately, and the 90+-minute play would benefit from a little cutting here and there. This could be the reason why, despite its beautiful aesthetic and subject matter, it is hard to become truly emotionally invested in the piece.

Regardless, this play is a sharp, urgent critique on the way society has dealt and still deals with those who are not always ‘the most needy’, but still in need – and it is very entertaining while doing so. With strong performances from the actors, its intricate and elaborate design and original set-up, Access All Areas has created a memorable, one-of-a-kind work, that becomes even more relevant when presented with the real ‘information booklet’ at the end of the tour.

Merel van t Hooft


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