In their 1964 Sanity, Madness and the Family, a radical polemic by psychiatrists RD Laing and Aaron Esterson, they describe a dozen case studies which in effect deny a biological basis for psychosis, instead positing that certain families generate psychotic behaviour in those of its members who bear the brunt of family dysfunction. Dramatist Moira Buffini locates her Blavatsky father, son and two daughters in a flat on the 25th floor of a tower block designed by architect Blavatsky père (a grey-haired and chalk-faced Alex Rugman, effectively aged). The patriarch's pride in his achievement has turned into the stuff of nightmares now that they are peopled by 'the crushed', the family's name for the lesser mortals who fester on the 24 floors below, suffering the broken lifts and blocked rubbish chutes that curdle the dream of the 60s visionaries with their steel frames and exposed concrete of the Brutalist method.
The Blavatsky psychosis manifests itself in an inability by three of the four of them to leave their flat – the elder daughter Audrey has an office job - whereas we of the first-night audience had the obverse problem, an inability to enter the Michael Pilch Studio until after the billed starting time, being left hanging about in a cold wind on the pavement outside. This problem, coupled with a technical hitch which denied the audience any cast- or crew-list, hinted at a degree of first night stress, perhaps appropriate for this play. When we did manage to penetrate the auditorium, it was to discover a minimalist set - two upright chairs and an armchair against a stark, white backdrop. I think a little more could have been done in the design to suggest both the literal and metaphorical height above ground level of the flat.
This is a shortish (90 minutes, no interval) drama that shows this family eking out an existence on the very furthest reaches of normality. Ms Buffini touches on the Blavatskys' discomfiture with change, the pulverising, infantilising effect on them as the father rages at the dimming of his dreams (in a not very subtle detail - his preferred reading is Milton's Paradise Lost). The younger daughter Ingrid has visions of angels, and the son Roland (an appropriately unwashed and volatile Marcus Knight-Adams, fiddling with his pyjamas and forelock), sees himself as a figure of some deluded eloquence, spouting undigested gobbets of cod-science, and no doubt in a nod to his father's example, announces:
"I'm not a weakling. You've rendered me powerless. It's a different thing!"
"I am normal. It's everyone else..."
The challenge for Ms Buffini is whether a case study can be turned into nuanced drama, and in my view the results are mixed. Whilst there's no doubt that the little 'black box' studio setting creates an intense atmosphere as these crippled folk interact just in front of us, there was a certain lack of freshness in the material. My neighbour Markus Baumgartner was unimpressed by the role of the doctor, played by John Livesey managing well to convey his incredulous reaction as the extent of the Blavatskys' illness reveals itself, especially given that that Ms Buffini's script here settles for generalised shock rather than any novelty of detail. He arrives at the behest of Audrey (an excellent Madeleine Pollard, stressed from imperfect awareness that she of all of them is inhabiting the conjunction of the external world and their hermetic space), and he is unsurprisingly successful in disengaging one of the family at least. It would also have been interesting had the viewpoint of 'the crushed' vis a vis the goings-on above them been explored.
No doubt the problems I mention are at least in part down to the short running time. What's not in doubt is the wholeheartedness of Tightrope Productions commitment. Director Philippa Lawford told me that the rehearsal period was a mere two weeks and two days. Given that this is billed as a tragi-comedy, that most difficult of genres to pull off, that's a terrific team effort. The cast, among whom Louisa Iselin shone as younger sister Ingrid, strong in her descriptions of out-of-body manifestations when awkwardness might have tripped her up, moved smoothly in the cramped space, and the important moments of humour rang out amidst the angst. I also liked the choice of a Chopin waltz, nocturne and etude that served to calm something of the febrile ambiance.
A worthy student production of a flawed play, well worth checking out.