Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
The titular Castle Lennox is a hospital, but not as we know it. Places like this – providing long-term residential care for people with learning disabilities, shutting them off from the outside world – no longer exist. Here, playwright Linda McLean explores the pros and the cons: the deep, affecting friendships forged and the toxic regime, rife with bullying.
It’s 1969 and teenager Annis (Emma McCaffrey) is proving too much of a handful for her stepmother (Fletcher Mathers). Annis is lively, independent and full of fun, and she also has a learning disability, which means she’s eligible for enrolment at Castle Lennox. Simultaneously entranced and terrified by its fairytale appearance, Annis enters with hope as well as trepidation. But the staff nurse (Mathers again) takes against her, and – as the years tick inexorably by – Annis’s spirit seems to be quashed. Thankfully, there are also some moments of joy, such as her tentative romance with fellow patient, William (Gavin Yule) – but is she too institutionalised to cope when, twenty years later, Castle Lennox finally closes down?
Castle Lennox, directed by Maria Oller, is a joint production between the Lyceum and Lung Ha, Scotland’s leading theatre company for learning disabled actors. It’s a superb example of how empowering and inclusive drama can be, a cleverly-woven narrative that both supports and enables its fine cast, as well as engaging a sold-out house. McCaffrey shines in the lead role, but fellow actors Yule, Emma Clark (Jo) and Nicola Tuxworth (Marie) also stand out, the latter clearly relishing her devilish character.
But, although the individuals are great, it’s the choral scenes that really make this piece. Movement director Janice Parker creates a bold dynamic, evoking the cheerful chaos of the laundry and Saturday tea parties, and the performers are all absolutely on their game, singing and dancing with gusto and aplomb. BSL interpreter Rachel Amey is nicely integrated into the production, subtly assuming the role of Annis’s dead mother, reassuring her daughter when she’s feeling low.
Karen Tennent’s nifty set places us first in an enchanted forest, where a grand gateway yields to an altogether more prosaic and clinical space, where white curtains segregate the patients from outsiders – and from each other. The costume design (by Alison Brown) also helps to locate us both in time and place, and I like the way Annis’s clothes become drabber as the institution wears her down.
All in all, Castle Lennox is a delight, well-deserving of the standing ovation it receives tonight.