Madwomen in the Attic

Wed 3rd – Tue 16th August 2016

reviews

Emma Taylor

at 08:47 on 15th Aug 2016

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Plain Heroines’ ‘Madwomen in the Attic’ is a play that has done the seemingly impossible. It has invented and portrayed a new slant on Brontë, with its gritty, beautiful exploration of the lesser characters of the novels. It is emotional, heart-breaking, aggressive and sad all at once, a dark play that is pierced with shards of comedy and light. It also has great music.

The play revolves around a therapy group, which, as it develops, becomes clearly a very clever way of tackling some of the deeper issues in Brontë’s writing. As most of the action takes place in a single room, the performance is intimate, a sensation that is heightened with the dark lighting. Characters are exquisitely developed. Jane, the therapist, is over-helpful, flustered and lonely; Isabel is a lost, fledgling adult who is pregnant with an abusive partner’s baby; Helen is an artist with an increasingly dark past; and Grace is a nurse with a love for karaoke. It is Tony (Antonia), who steals the show, though – she is Rochester’s madwoman in the attic, finally let free and in contemporary society, being treated for mental illness. She is a kaleidoscopic character: incredibly complex, raw, and the personification of both violence and vulnerability. Through her and the others we enter the literal and mental worlds of imprisonment.

Crucial to its brilliance is the way these characters turn previous assumptions on their heads. Tony asks ‘Was the attic made for the madwoman, or was the woman made mad by the attic?’, a question which aches with unexplored avenues of patriarchy and domestic violence. It is heavy stuff, yet what makes this play glitter despite the darkness is the comedy. It is dryly witty, with self-deprecating humour and brilliant one liners which mainly come from Tony, whose sexual jokes, despite treading a tightrope, always manage to fall on the right side of humour. Another key aspect is the music: scenes and times of the year are changed with an unexpectedly beautiful karaoke. Think honeyed, mellow, crooning songs such as ‘My Funny Valentine’.

The acting is stunning. The range of emotions from the cast is a spectrum of anger, despair and also courage in the face of their dark lives. From the therapist Jane’s pathetic yet touching faith in cups of tea, to Tony’s railing against the patriarchy, ‘Madwomen in the Attic’ is heart-warming and heart-breaking.

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Dominic Leonard

at 10:40 on 15th Aug 2016

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‘Madwomen in the Attic’, a new play from Plain Heroines, sees women inspired by the novels of the Brontë sisters landed in the 21st century at a Women’s Aid meeting. Despite a seemingly humble set-up, and a very unassuming set of a few chairs and a microphone taking up the small C-Nova studio, this show is a powerful, passionate and incredibly smart piece of new theatre.

The standout of the show is without a doubt the remarkable Rossana Suppa as Tony (or Antonia, if you aren’t friends), a seemingly self-destructive and marvellous woman obsessed with alcohol and sex. Her performance is full of charm, humour and brilliance, and when the time is right, she is able to make an emotional sucker-punch wind you even harder. She is exemplified by the rest of the equally incredible cast, each with a very different personality – the brash, vulgar Tony is contrasted against the awkward Jane (Olivia Le Andersen), the snobby Helen (Kate Reid), the immature Isabel (Julia Kass) and the quiet Grace (Joanna Clarke), each bringing an individual portion of refined excellence. This is a genuinely superb group of actors.

Perhaps ‘quiet Grace’ is not so accurate; she is quiet in the group sessions, but the play also incorporates monologues and musical sections in between scenes, in which Grace sings and the others mime as her back-up band. Needless to say, Clarke’s voice is exceptional, and these sections work very well in separating long periods of time, the play seeing Isabel through her whole pregnancy. Writer Aoife Kennan has done a fabulous job in carefully moulding these characters, and Gabriella Bird through her exceptional direction has been able to create some funny, captivating and sometimes very emotionally potent interactions.

Tony asks: “Was the attic made for the madwoman or was the woman made mad by the attic?” This play acts as vindication and liberation, and it is a beautiful insight into mental illness, how we treat it and how we deal with it. Along with subtle but effective lighting from Catja Hamilton, a great design from Natalie Price to make the best use of the very small space, and an absolutely stellar soundtrack, this play is nothing short of stellar. Bold, powerful, unafraid; this is a force of nature, and you’d be sorry to miss it.

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