A madhouse at the Criterion

The warning signs were there: the blood-spattered programme, with its ‘parental advisory’; the menacing stewards; the panic alarm on the desk.  But that was scant preparation for what followed.  Anthony Horowitz’s Mindgame, the latest Criterion Theatre production, was a visceral examination of good, evil, psychiatry, and the boundaries between sanity and madness.

Hack writer Styler (played by the increasingly bewildered Jon Styles) makes a living penning popular accounts of serial killers’ crimes.  The play opens with his arrival at Fairfields mental hospital to interview convicted killer Easterman.  But in this hermetically sealed world, nothing is quite what it seems, and events spiral out of control from the word go.

His host, Craig Shelton’s disquieting Dr. Farquhar, seems strangely unaware of the writer’s supposedly pre-announced visit.  When Farquhar persuades Styler to don a straitjacket to ‘get inside the mind’ of Easterman, all hell breaks loose.  Farquhar morphs into Easterman, at the head of a mob (unseen) that has apparently taken over the institution and killed the real Farquhar.  Murder and mayhem then seemingly ensue, with Styler in the end persuaded that he is in essence no different from the serial killer who fascinates him.

Is Styler really a mad inmate all along, caught up in an elaborate psychodrama?  We’re never told.  The three actors did a superb job of creating and sustaining a bewildering, intimidating, even frightening atmosphere, throwing out questions about who and what is normal, the malleability of personality, and the imbalance of power in institutional relationships.

The central stage, with audience seating on three sides, allows the audience to get uncomfortably close to some apparently pretty stomach-churning action.  Suffocation, death by scalpel (with appropriate noises off) – the advisory about onstage smoking seemed likely to be the least of a parent’s worries.  But Anne-marie Greene’s taut direction steered the piece expertly away from the reefs of schlock horror on which it could easily have been wrecked, and allowed the actors to demonstrate, once again, just why an evening at the Criterion is such a compelling event.

The production for March is the “warm, tender – and multi-award winning” play, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. The piece premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1990, and tells the story of five impoverished spinster sisters in a remote part of County Donegal at harvest time in 1936.

The five Mundy sisters, ranging in age from twenty-six to forty, live in a cottage outside the village of Ballybeg, and are barely able to make ends meet.  With them live Michael, seven year old son of the youngest sister, and Jack, the sisters’ elder brother, a missionary priest newly returned from Africa.  The events of that summer are recounted looking back by the adult Michael, who reminisces with warmth and tenderness about that time.

Previous productions of the play elsewhere have won many awards, including an Olivier and a Tony.  It’s also been made into a film starring Meryl Streep.  This production is directed by the Criterion’s Annie Woodward, and runs from 22 to 29 March.

Tickets are available from the box office – for details of how to book using the secure voicemail/online ticketing, visit the Criterion website or you can phone the box office on 024 7667 5175 (evenings from 8 – 9 pm the week before the play is on, or 7.30 – 9 pm during the week of the play).