Broadmoor Hospital, C on Chambers Street, Chris Bianchi, Chris Courtenay, Chris Donnelly, Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, Lullabies of Broadmoor, Madness, Murder, Psychiatry, Psychosis, Richard Dadd, Steve Hennessy, The Demon Box, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, Theatre Review, Violet Ryder, William Chester Minor
“The Demon Box” is the second play in Steve Hennessy’s Lullabies of Broadmoor quartet, which tell the stories of some of the more infamous residents of Broadmoor Hospital. Tychy was entertained but not wholly convinced by the first play of the series, “Venus at Broadmoor,” but the subject of their second instalment is so fascinating that I finally volunteered to be readmitted to this asylum.
Richard Dadd was a prodigious but highly unstable Victorian artist who was interned in Broadmoor after cutting his father’s throat in the mistaken conviction that he was a demon. Relieved of the responsibilities of liberty, Dadd could finally concentrate on his painting, and the result was an extraordinary body of “fairy” art, encompassing visions of awesome composition and hypnogogic intensity.
Quite bravely, “The Demon Box” opts to put Dadd on stage without any examples of his painting, and perhaps Chris Bianchi’s powerful portrayal of Dadd and several striking hallucinatory scenes almost succeed in evoking some substitute essence. But the exclusion of Dadd’s art was ultimately unhelpful. I was familiar with the painting which is at one point described in the play, “The Fairy-Fellers Master Stroke,” but not with the Broadmoor theatre curtain which Dadd is mostly observed executing. It is a shame that Hennessy was not game for ferreting out some of the stories behind Dadd’s other paintings, whilst it remains unclear whether the prospect of an artistic collaboration between Dadd and his fellow inmate William Chester Minor (Chris Courtenay) is, perhaps like that theatre curtain, only a flight of fancy.
“The Demon Box” is superior to “Venus at Broadmoor” in being more concerned with Broadmoor’s inmates than its psychiatric regime. “Venus at Broadmoor” featured only a single lunatic – the poisoner Christiana Edmunds – set against the ranks of the sane. “The Demon Box,” however, portrays two lunatics, a hallucination (Violet Ryder), and only one Broadmoor official, the beleaguered John Coleman (Chris Donnelly). Whereas Chris Bianchi had previously played the frustrated Doctor Orange, now Orange is entirely absent and the lunatic Dadd stands in his shoes.
There are still hitches and glitches in what one wishes could be a smooth ride. Dadd and Minor’s lengthy pronouncements are habitually punctured by an unfunny one-liner from Coleman’s direction, although Donnelly works hard to ensure that this does not grate too much. Moreover, although Hennessy proclaims to be concerned with sensitive portrayals of the mentally ill, Dadd verges on becoming the old caricature of a ranting psychopath, particularly when Minor “catches” Dadd’s hallucination at the end of the play.
My ultimate problem with this quartet, however, is that it intrudes upon human darkness with too light a heart. Attending “The Demon Box” was like watching the second instalment of a now-familiar sitcom. Perhaps they should call it Porridge with Psychos?