Clear White Light Review
What do you get when Alan Hull meets Edgar Allan Poe, the politically attuned songwriting genius of Lindisfarne and the troubled master of the gothic yarn?
Not a rigorously probing assessment of the current state of the NHS but something more visceral and emotionally disturbing.
Something, as you’ll see in Paul Sirett’s new play for Live Theatre, which while referencing under-funding and under-staffing – the perennial gripes – and name checking Jeremy Hunt (when Health Secretary) also aims to put the shivers up us in time for Hallowe’en.
Alan Hull, who died aged 50 in 1995, worked with patients at St. Nicholas’ Hospital, Gosforth, in the 1960s. He was also a fan of Edgar Allen Poe and especially The Fall of the House of Usher, the American author’s supernatural horror shocker of 1839.
With the aid of Alan’s songs – though mostly not the jaunty ones like Fog on the Tyne – Sirett gives a version of the Poe story set at St. Nick’s in 2015.
Odd to think, looking at Neil Warmington’s Dickensian set, that this was a place where people were sent to get well – though in the old days some were banged up out of sight, out of mind and supposedly out of harm’s way.
The building serves here as the modern equivalent of Poe’s cracked and creepy House of Usher where the very masonry seems infused with anguish.
In Sirett’s play, rather than the anonymous narrator called to aid Roderick Usher in his hour of need, we have Alison, recalling her time here three years previously as a nervous student nurse on a placement.
Alison (a welcome quick return to Live Theatre for Bryony Corrigan after My Romantic History) meets her night shift mentor on the adult ward. This is Rod (Joe Caffrey) who seems like a nice bloke – bit stressed, bit dizzy on occasions but capable and caring.
He likes a bit of art, too, just like Poe’s Roderick (uh-oh, alarm bells will ring if you know the story). And he has a sister – a twin sister called Maddie (Roderick’s was Madeline) who is in this very hospital and is just about as gothic and alarming as Charlie Hardwick can make her.
Except when she’s fronting the band in some of the lighter Lindisfarne numbers through which Maddie’s story is told.
Joe Douglas, directing his first play for Live Theatre as Artistic Director, delivers a production whose tongue is just about where it should be in its cheek. It’s melodrama with all the attendant crashes, flashes and bangs.
Caffrey and Hardwick (and indeed Corrigan) are safe hands and it’s great to see them back – and who better to bang out the rhythms that Lindisfarne stalwarts Billy Mitchell (guitar) and Ray Laidlaw (drums)?
Billy also plays a St. Nick’s patient, Citroen-hating ex-car dealer Barry, while band members Phil Adele and Dale Jewitt double as, respectively, delusional freelance journalist Aaron and self-harming maths whizz Charlie.
Completing the cast – and the band - is Alice Blundell as nurse Jo.
The twist, when it comes, will make you consider the important question of what actually constitutes sanity? Nobody, as we are constantly being reminded, is immune from mental trauma and it takes many forms.
But that question is not exactly left hanging in the air because of the final musical number, Bring Down the Government.
Ted Heath was in the hot seat when Alan Hull wrote it but, hey, it has the timeless appeal of a Halloween thrill. If you want to send an audience home in a mood of jovial anarchy, clearly this is the way to do it.
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Clear White Light is at Live Theatre until Saturday 10 November. It is currently sold out, but returns may be available online.