, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Venus at Broadmoor” is the first of a “quartet” of plays about the history of Broadmoor Hospital which have been brought to the Fringe by Bristol’s Stepping Out Theatre, who themselves have a declared interest in the theatre’s treatment of those afflicted by mental illness. The play is presently running at C on Chambers Street. The Venus of the piece is Christiana Edmunds, the infamous “Chocolate Cream Poisoner,” who was incarcerated in Broadmoor in 1872 after one of her naughty chocolates killed a four year old child. Edmunds had purchased confectionary, doctored it with strychnine, and then returned it to the original stores, who put it back on the shelves. Today, she would be called a terrorist and our politicians would have introduced half a dozen illiberal new laws to show that they were on top of the situation, but Edmunds lived in more Enlightened times, and she passed the remainder of her life quietly in Broadmoor.

Violet Ryder’s Edmunds is a perky and shiny-faced nymphomaniac, who cavorts with a sterile sexual theatricality. They send her to Broadmoor, and, with the words “get thee to a nunnery” ringing in our ears, she falls into the hands of two Victorian bachelors, who are already a little mad themselves and get progressively madder as Edmunds begins to flirtatiously bare her ankles. The head of Broadmoor, Dr Orange (Chris Bianchi), appears to want to cure her of being a woman rather than being merely insane, and there is consequently a strict ban on nice dresses and make-up. But, groping about in the dark a little before Dr. Freud had switched the lights on, he rightly reasons that the cause of all mental illness is a want of “love.”

Yet he cannot provide this treatment himself and, in any case, the shadow of Edmunds’ abusive father has already fallen over him and his gesticulating cannot be perceived in the darkness. Edmunds makes more progress with Dr Orange’s deputy, John Coleman (Chris Donnelly), but he is ultimately, like Orange, not man enough to fuck his patient back to mental health.

It is pleasant to pick over this obscure little corner of history, but the trouble with “Venus at Broadmoor” is that it wobbles between farce and realism, forging an uneasy truce between the innocence of the former and the depth of the latter. The play begins with some competently choreographed but somewhat bloodless farce scenes, and lots of pointless cheap shots about Dr Beard (Chris Courtenay) having a close shave and a man whose wife finally drives him to the lunatic asylum in a hackney carriage. The play’s funniest moment is possibly unintended, but I was just amused when somebody despaired that Edmunds had poisoned people across Brighton.

Yet the play eventually seems to cure itself of its farcical neurotic tics, and the standoff between Orange and his patient steadily acquires a greater power and interest. The psychiatric patient is a slave dancing naked for her master, which with perfect circularity is itself akin to the child abuse which ultimately necessitates psychiatry. The doctor who prescribes “love” is himself unable to be treated of his emotional sterility by his sexually ravenous patient. Whilst “Venus at Broadmoor” is not quite Silence of the Lambs, this play offers, in its clearer moments, the suggestion of an elegant and dainty allegory.