Last week I went to see RedCape Theatre‘s The Idiot Colony, which was at Birmingham Rep for two nights on its tour. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m so glad I went. The play, which features three performers of RedCape Theatre, moves between a hairdressing salon in the 1980s and a mental hospital in the 1940s. The play is based on true events, although is only representative of them rather than literally being biographical, but the events are shocking, moving and intriguing all at once. The play is predicated on the fact that until the 1950s, the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 meant that someone could be incarcerated for what was seen as moral weakness, resulting in women’s imprisonment in institutions for bearing an illegitimate child or being a lesbian, for example. Most shocking of all, though, is that some of these women weren’t released until the 1990 Care in the Community Act came into force.
Such are the bare bones of the story, and it is told well, with details gradually revealed, both of the reasons for the women’s incarceration, and of their lives in the institution. Of course, though not really in need of psychiatric care, they become institutionalised, one eagerly taking all tablets, another being forced to undergo a lobotomy. The play is short, but packed with emotion, and played out like a ballet; movement and music are every bit as important as words here, and the three actors move like dancers across the stage in a mad/sane dance.
RedCape should certainly win some kind of award for the most innovative use of props I have ever seen. Though the stage is plain and bare – three chairs, three towels and one or two other accoutrements of a hairdresser’s, they create a wonderful bath from a towel, for example, and with the use of lighting their simulation of being in a cinema is fascinating. It is rare to see a play where everything – not just words, music, movement, but also props, lighting and an indefinable atmosphere, work together to create something so moving and gripping. If it’s coming to a theatre near you, see it!