Northfields – Friday 3rd January

I booked this show on a bit of a whim. Unable to get tickets last night for a show at Vault Festival, my friend Chas, whom I’d been hoping to see there, suggested we go to Shrink Theatre’s Northfields tonight instead. I was initially hesitant – having been ill earlier in the week and spending a lot of time travelling yesterday then out last night, I had been quite looking forward to getting home early and spending the evening getting reacquainted with the sofa!

But I’m so glad I went. After a mad dash across London to get to Plaistow from work, I met Chas in the foyer, bumped into my new theatre buddy Sabrina that I met in NYC, then got ready for an evening of immersive theatre.

I’ve seen some brilliant small immersive productions, and some less successful ones. Many of them use immersive as a buzzword and aren’t actually immersive at all, some are just a little amateurish, and some are genuinely great. Northfields, I’m pleased to report, was pretty great.

Here’s what the website says:

Set in the late 1970s at the cusp of mental health reform, Shrink theatre present an immersive theatrical journey through an institution on the verge of closure. Delve into the lives of our residents and staff, and take your place in the system during this pivotal time. Will Northfields provide the care you require? And what do you know about running a hospital?

Reflecting on the NHS past and present, we challenge you to think about the treatment of mental health both medically and socially, then and now. How much has really changed in 40 years?

I didn’t do much research other than reading this – Punchdrunk did always teach me to go in blind! – and I wasn’t sure it would live up to this. I tried not to get my hopes up, as it promised to be intelligent and inquisitive, but it really was. And it was entertaining too.

On arrival, you’re asked to form 2 queues – we figured from the items on the table we were going to be split into staff and patients. I joined the patients’ queue, and sure enough was given my hospital wrist band and sent off into the infirmary’s communal lounge area. We were led through a day in the hospital, – assessments, taking our medication, group therapy, mealtimes, etc. Along the way we met a few other patients, and we crossed paths with the staff (both cast and audience) at various points.

The characters were well developed, and each patient had a distinct story which made them all incredibly sympathetic, and exposing the unsuitability of the “one size fits all” approach to treatment in the 70s. Matt and Soapy were charismatic, but also incredibly sad when their vulnerability showed – even though I knew what Matt had up his sleeves, I still had a little pang of sadness when he looked me in the eye and showed us. Martha’s horrible treatment by the very people meant to understand her – both patients and staff – was awful to witness and raised important questions. But it was Em that I was most intrigued by, a nervous soul with sad, tortured eyes. His performance was subtle but powerful as he silently and gently tried to cope with his reality and help the people around him. Despite usually being in the background, overwhelmed by much more dynamic characters, I kept finding my eye drawn to him as he curled up into a protective ball, twitched in reaction to something, put pencil to paper, or reached out to someone and by the end I was feeling really rather attached to him.

I spent less time with the infirmary staff, but I imagine if I’d followed that path I would have seen more of the stresses and strains of running the hospital on a shoestring with limited resources, and as a result I would have felt more sympathetic to the staff – though we did get glimpses of it from a patient’s perspective. They clearly weren’t all monsters, just struggling to cope. Chas actually stayed to see if he could get a ticket for the evening’s late show to follow the other journey – I probably would have stayed with him if I weren’t still feeling a bit ropey and keen to get home to the sofa!

Overall, it was powerful, sensitive, intelligent, and incredibly well executed. Highly recommended.

Tomorrow’s its last night – if you’re at a loose end, go. They deserve a sell out for their finale. Find out more and book tickets at http://www.shrinktheatre.co.uk/northfields

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