Review: Powerful and emotional exploration of mental health staged in Rugby

Alice in the Cuckoos Nest is created and performed by Librarian Theatre
Alice in the Cuckoos Nest is created and performed by Librarian Theatre

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Alice in the Cuckoo's Nest at Rugby Library

It seemed obvious to me when I heard about it: Alice’s fantastic adventures in Wonderland and the ‘madness’ of psychosis have a natural fit. Talking animals, weird logic, strange, inexplicable, sensory impressions. Alice in the Cuckoo’s Nest, created and performed by Librarian Theatre, is probably about as close to its evocation on stage as one is likely to get.

Alice (Lucy Mangan) is a young woman sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This means she has been detained for 28 days in hospital involuntarily for her own protection. It’s a drastic intervention, but it’s one that many people with acute mental illness undergo.

Mental illness is not unusual. Rather, it is very common, though extreme cases like Alice’s are less so. In a corner of Rugby’s beautiful library, the extraordinary world of someone seriously traumatised by mental illness came to life. Alice undergoes treatment, essentially trying out various drugs to see which works best, a suck-it-and-see methodology which is at the heart of a lot of medical treatment. She is treated kindly – no Nurse Ratched here. But she lives in a terrifying world in which she fights to preserve her sense of self against overwhelming odds. The dangers come from the fact that she doesn’t see the world as others do. She feels herself falling into a hole, down to a place where she is pursued by a strange white rabbit, and where talking birds, caterpillars and cats are terrifyingly real.

Lucy Mangan’s performance was awesome. One felt the fear, the sadness, and the courage of a young woman so terribly alone, trying to make sense of it all. She comes through in the end, the drugs work, the care she receives is good. But we see through her eyes how easily the doctors and nurses morph into freakish monsters, messing with her head, blurring the line between what is and what might be. She is supported onstage by fellow actors, Amy Gardyne, Kelly Eva-May and Tom Cuthbertson, who shapeshift throughout to deliver a fantastic hallucinatory performance.

Librarian Theatre are a tiny company that perform in places where words live. This was the penultimate show in a forty-date tour that I imagine might leave them each wanting a little TLC themselves. During the Q&A afterwards they spoke of how their show had helped to promote discussion about mental illness.

Quite often shows about people with dementia and psychosis tend to sweeten the pill, to portray sufferers as eccentric rather than ill. This didn’t, and it lost not a jot of humanity in the process.

* The play took place on Thursday February 22. See www.librariantheatre.com for more information.