Theatre Review: Mad Women - PopUp Cinema, Acklam Road, London ✭✭✭✭

A wet and windy night under the Westway was the perfect setting for Barefaced Theatre’s production of Mad Women, a dark and complex exploration of four female authors’ struggle with personal demons, and their determination to write despite the discouragement of those around them.

Berri George's play examined the lives of four extraordinary female writers from the nineteenth and early-twentieth century: Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf. Each woman’s tale gradually unfolded across the course of the play, moving between personal triumphs and setbacks, whilst repeatedly juxtaposing each woman’s compulsion to write alongside her struggles with her mental health. Whilst husbands, friends and doctors urged these women not to keep returning to their work, all four sought writing as a means of working through the complex emotions they were facing. This was powerfully emphasised in a final scene that brought all four writers together, gazing directly into the audience and scribbling furiously whilst a monster-like embodiment of their demons writhed behind them.

The production itself was creatively staged throughout, with scenes occasionally overlapping in dialogue to indicate each woman’s shared concerns. The cinema screen was also very effectively utilized, both for displaying scenery and quotations and for providing a backdrop to each woman’s disordered mental state. The silently lapping waves that Virginia Woolf disappeared into and the swirling yellow wallpaper of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous tale were particularly haunting images that added greatly to the atmosphere of the production.

In addition, the female actors were all excellent, especially Alexa Brown as Virginia Woolf and Anne Zander as Mary Shelley, who both brilliantly portrayed the struggle between levity and darkness that each woman faced. The grief-stricken Mary Shelley railing at God for the cruel and unfathomable loss of three of her children was particularly powerfully done, and very moving.

My only real criticisms of the production relate to the pop-up space it was performed in. Whilst the bare, echoing, warehouse-like feel of the auditorium felt in tune with the play’s dark complexity, on the night we visited it was also incredibly cold. Blankets are provided on the seats, but I would recommend extra layers (and possibly an interval hot toddy) in order to stay comfortable. The theatre’s location means there is also a fair amount of traffic noise from overhead which I found a little distracting at times, occasionally missing out on what the actors were saying. All in all, however, these are minor quibbles. I found Mad Women a complex, creative and challenging evening’s entertainment, which provided a fresh look at the work of four important female writers, whilst questioning how ‘madness’ can truly be defined.  

4 stars out of 5 ✭✭✭✭ 

Review by Emma Curry


Runs every night Saturday 6th October - Saturday 13th October