Review: Takin’ Over the Asylum (Daily Telegraph)

Takin’ Over the Asylum, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, review

Donna Franceschild’s play Takin’ Over the Asylum preserves all the comedy and humanity of her award-winning 1994 TV series, says Mark Brown.

The world has changed a great deal since Takin’ Over the Asylum, Donna Franceschild’s award-winning six-part TV series set in a Glasgow mental hospital, charmed the UK back in 1994. The show’s stars, Ken Stott and David Tennant (aka DI John Rebus and Dr Who, respectively), have become household names, and day-to-day life has been revolutionised by the internet and mobile phone technology.

Whether social attitudes to mental health have made similar progress since alcoholic window salesman and DJ Eddie McKenna first attempted to revive the radio station at St Jude’s Hospital almost 20 years ago is a moot point. What is certain is that – in refashioning her screenplay as a contemporary, two-hour stage play – Franceschild has, while maintaining the comedy and humanity of the TV series, added a fascinating new dimension to her drama.

With the assistance of mobile phones and the IT genius of engineer and fellow in-patient, Fergus, the denizens of St Jude’s are able to move their campaign to keep the station open to a whole new level. Although Alex Lowde’s convincingly bleak set shows only the small corner of the ward where “Steady Eddie” has his studio, the hospital windows now seem to open, not onto a courtyard, but onto the entire world outside.

The play (a co-production by the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre) clicks along at a rewardingly fast pace, but never so fast that we don’t have time to stop, empathise and understand something of the mental illnesses of people such as Francine (who self harms as a consequence of a tortured childhood) or Rosalie (for whom unbearable bereavement led to obsessive compulsive disorder).

Director Mark Thomson receives fine performances right across a diverse cast. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scenes in which the acclaimed Iain Robertson (on darkly humorous and emotive form as Eddie) plays opposite undergraduate actor Brian Vernel (an impressive, high octane outing as manic wannabe DJ Campbell).

Grant O’Rourke is charmingly dignified as super-intelligent Fergus. Helen Mallon and Caroline Paterson give affecting performances as Francine and Rosalie. For those who relish the patient/staff conflict of a Scottish One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – rather than a more nuanced and realistic picture of mental-health professionals – Martin McCormick’s surly and violent nursing assistant, Stuart, is suitably monstrous.

At the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until March 9. Transferring to the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, March 13-April 6.

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 19, 2013

© Mark Brown

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