“Cracked Smiles” At Chapel off Chapel

When talking about stories, plays or films about power dynamics in psychiatric institutions, it is invariable that one finds oneself discussing the power dynamics of society itself. It’s just one of those little ironies; we’re all living in one big nuthouse. Arguably the finest example of this is “Girl, Interrupted”, the 1993 memoir of Susanna Kaysen who, in the 1960’s, was incarcerated in what was then known as an asylum after being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In 1999 it was adapted into an unforgettable film starring Wynona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and the late Brittany Murphy. Before them was Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and it’s 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, both giving the performances of a lifetime. Kesey had been a porter in an institution in the 1950’s, before writing then novel. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was adapted into a stage play as well, performed at Chapel off Chapel back in 2011.

There is more that sets these two so vastly apart from the new show at Chapel off Chapel, “Cracked Smiles” than the fact that neither writer and producer Kieran Gould-Dowen or directors Jacinta Scadden and Gemma Flannery have clearly never even set foot in a psych ward, unlike myself. However, the depiction of eight “psychopaths” contained within the confines of a single room is a monumental task to tackle, and a concept that could, given proper work, research and intuition, be a deeply moving and confronting experience.

The reason it is not is evident as soon as the audience enter the theatre: we are brought in via the stage, where we see the various characters engaged in their leisurely pastimes, amongst which are a woman, Holly (played quite well by Rebecca Brigden) listening to headphones with a large, black chord – contraband inside such an institution. As are the pen wannabe journalist Emma Cox writes with and the black scarf hanging from former model Shamita Sivabalan’s coat rack. As the play progresses, we learn that these are dangerous cases; possibly murderers, all. They then assault staff entirely without consequence, despite mention of strict security guards in the dialogue. Research is everything when it comes to addressing the souls of those who still live, albeit in a cocoon outside of a society they can’t bear to exist in. It is not confronting in the way the creators intended to see them reduced to poor stereotypes and clichés.

Another few drafts and a consultation with a more experienced writer would have also saved the script from a lot of the undercooked dialogue and gaping plot holes. “Do you fear me?” asks Aaron James Campbell’s villain, at one point. Such pantomimic cartoonery has no place in what is advertised as a gritty, realistic depiction of the cracks in our society. What the crew of Thatcher’s Boy Theatre are trying to do is huge, and it is commendable that they are taking on such a project, given their apparent age. But they must do it well. This script has so much that could be improved upon, and such potential if they only took the time to nurture and grow this ambitious undertaking. What we saw tonight was born prematurely. It needs more incubation, more time and much more care.

The effort was not saved by the acting. Performances lacked intimacy and truth. The directors needed to put less emphasis on how to say lines and blocking and work more from an organic place – finding character and honesty with the performers. Seb Muirhead as Nigel was a notable exception, a lot more homework was evident on his part, as was the aforementioned Brigden as Holly, giving far more natural performances.

This seedling could truly grow into something powerful, but it isn’t there yet. I strongly encourage the creators to work on it, after the season is done, and bring it back when it – and they – are truly ready to shine. I am certain they will.

Review written by Max Davine for Good Vibes Media

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