C on Chambers Street, Chris Bianchi, Chris Courtenay, Chris Donnelly, Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh Fringe, Lullabies of Broadmoor, Madness, Nihilism, Oxford English Dictionary, Psychiatry, Steve Hennessy, Theatre Review, Violet Ryder, William Chester Minor
When Tychy witlessly quipped that Steve Hennessy’s “Lullabies of Broadmoor” quartet should have been named “Porridge with Psychos,” this was intended as an epigraph. But despite not being satisfied with the quartet’s overall aesthetic, my scepticism was discredited, somewhat to my own surprise, by my eagerness to give it a third chance. I returned to see the final instalment, “Wilderness,” on its last night in Edinburgh. One knows that there must be more substantial plays on elsewhere at the Fringe, but these Lullabies have the easy appeal of comfort food.
Once again, Hennessy has a fascinating story to tell. William Chester Minor (Chris Courtenay), who had played second fiddle to the equally fascinating Richard Dadd in “The Demon Box,” now has the stage to himself. “Wilderness” is based on the amusing observation that the most industrious contributor of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary was a nymphomaniac. If whenever somebody first picks up a dictionary, they head straight for the dirty words, it transpires that Minor’s excessive libido was the creative force behind the OED.
There is a certain melodramatic polish to Hennessy’s idea of lunacy – with his lunatics chatting away to their hallucinations – but the depths are probably sound. If the redoubtable John Coleman (Chris Donnelly), who supervises the gentlemen’s block, jokes that his mind cannot be like a sewer because it lacks the depth, Minor’s obsession with words impresses us with a sense of the darkness which they cannot illuminate. These people cannot change, and they can only be imprisoned. I had previously found Coleman’s jokes to be an annoyance and a distraction, but with “Wilderness” I realised that they not only sweetened an unsavoury dish, transforming a lament into a lullaby, but that they go some way to redeeming his character. Coleman can only joke, because he is powerless to do anything else. Whilst he is not as “mad” as his prisoners, his nature is just as tragically doomed to repetition.
Courtenay imagines Minor as being rather like an alternative version of Henry James who was unable to avoid the American Civil War. He is refined, arch, and gently American, and yet this civilised lid cannot hold down the horror. That screw has been turned too much. Perhaps we are so absorbed in this compelling figure, that only Minor’s encounter with his victim’s widow (Violet Ryder), and the sudden glimpse of him from afar, establishes the reality of his madness. “Wilderness” could not secure a role meaty enough for Chris Bianchi, however, and the play was somewhat jeopardised by showing Minor’s self-castration on stage. However fine an actor Courtenay may be, I doubt that anybody could believably act such an eye-watering experience. Oddly, they failed to say what happened to Minor’s penis after its removal, which should be by the bye, except that I cannot quite get an image out of my head of the deranged Minor using it as a bookmark.
“Lullabies of Broadmoor” is now on the road to London’s Finborough Theatre.