Poignant in places and funny in others, The Madwomen in the Attic manages to be both touching and repellant. The darkness of the humour is its strength and open conversation concerning sex and thrush, amongst other things, is presented in a refreshing and ungratuitous way. At times, however, the play is in danger of losing pace and direction.
The cast works very well together and the way they play off each other is the strength of the piece. Katurah Morrish’s Antonia is the best written character and, consequently, the most interesting to watch. Her lines show insight into the treatment of the mentally ill within the twenty-first century, but also seem very honest, and one wonders if Antonia wasn’t speaking the truths that many women are too afraid to speak. The overall effect is purgative. A particular stand-out moment is when Antonia confronts Claire Burchett’s good-natured Jane, demanding that she be allowed to leave with her warden, at which point the anxieties and difficulties of the character are presented to full effect. Another poignant moment is a conversation between Amy Malone’s Isabel and Julia Kass’ Helen where both speak of their experience of domestic abuse. Olivia Gaunt as Grace sings very well and, even if it almost feels in danger of becoming repetitive, her karaoke breaks are one of the highlights of the performance. The stark contrast of her one-liners at other moments in the play makes them all the more comic.
However, as diverse as the character’s personalities and occupations are and as different as they might have been, the group nevertheless succeeds in coming across as highly homogenous in social standing and background. It os strange, therefore, to also feel that the play relies partly on stereotypes to make the characters come alive. Whether this is intentional or not is perhaps inconsequential, as is the misattribution of a Marx quote to Nietzsche.
In fact, the level to which the play relies on intentional symbolism is very interesting. A reference to a neighbour, ‘Gilbert’ is a pleasing nod to Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in The Attic, and shows proof of a greater academicism in the structuring of the play and its characters than one might otherwise have thought. Subtle references to the Bronte sisters pervade the dialogue and bring an edge to the proceedings, anchoring the twenty-first century in relation to the nineteenth. The case as to whether society cares about these women is presented well but does not go far enough and it could have been both more hard-hitting and less emotive. However, the sheer wit and sensitivity with which the characters are portrayed makes up for any lapses elsewhere.
Overall, The Madwomen in the Attic is very human and enjoyable and the cast are to be commended on an excellent performance.