Written and Lyrics by Linda McLean
Composed by Michael John McCarthy
Directed by Maria Oller
Even a prison can seem like a kingdom – it has for those abandoned there to survive.
One such world of speculative wonderment and expected safety is that of Castle Lennox: a long-awaited co-production between The Royal Lyceum and Lung Ha Theatre Company, an ensemble-based theatre company of learning-disabled performers and creative, responsible for recent productions An Unexpected Hiccup and We Are Just Little Creatures.
The prospect of a sudden holiday for Annis, a lively and keen young woman with autism, seems peculiar when it is suggested by her stepmother. But under the pretence of the desperate need for ‘a break’, she relents. It isn’t until later that Annis realises the break, is for her stepmother, not her. With a reluctance to set out on the journey, Annis’ passion for fairy tales cannot help but be entranced by the distant castle spotted through the mundaneness of various pines and birch trees sprinkled amongst the landscape. As someone who has always wished they were living a different life, with their birth mother in the wide halls of a castle as a princess – Castle Lennox seems like a dream to Annis, now called Agnes, a dehumanising tactic by the hospital staff.
The fairy-tale allegories present in one of Scotland’s finest writers, Linda McLean, script are impossible to ignore, even outside of the verbatim references to Cinderella and Snow White. The lines of patients visiting a sleep-induced Annis, ‘Cake Saturdays’ and even the musical elements help drape the veil of familiarity to a story that many of us will have never experienced. Even Simon Wilkinson’s lighting cascades the Lyceum stage in an enchanted, even otherworldly, under Michael John McCarthy’s evocative composition, performed wonderfully by the just off-stage band.
But the truth is harsher than any world of wicked stepmothers and inescapable woods. Nevertheless, McLean’s piece (devised with the performers of Lung Ha) dips its toes into the fantastical, it is nevertheless based on an entirely real institution. Maria Oliver’s (Artistic Director for Lung Ha) direction possesses an understanding of the ensemble cast, allowing for measured perceptiveness and various ripples of humour. Those who seek for the production to be ‘grittier’ or harsher in its depiction of the dehumanisation and procedures of the hospital may be looking too hard at the forest amidst this fantastical wood. Oliver’s direction resonates with truthfulness in expression while enabling Lung Ha to tackle the story their way once more, on their terms.
The shades of evil sit very much at the surface of Castle Lennox, and though some may argue for its necessity and even plausibility or subtlety, these people exist. And though the elements of bullying and abuse sit very clearly throughout, it is Kevin Lennon’s Doctor’s more sinister smile-coated passion and advocacy for eugenics which should chill the heart more than the bark of the abusive pair of Annis’ stepmother and her orderly, captured chillingly by Fletcher Mathers, their duality of conjuring both humour and outright fury from the audience perfectly pitches the entire production.
Where the sugar-coated world of princesses and dragons is laced with the monotony of laundry and porridge, cutting through everything is a spectacular lead performance from Emma McCaffrey, who has a command of both the surrealist elements of the show and the grounded harshness lurking beyond the curtain. They walk Karen Tennet’s exquisite set with authority, even when playing to the more naïve or timid, winding around the hospital corridors and interacting with Gavin Yule’s chipper William, Kirsty Elia McIntyre’s sympathetic Nurse Lilibet or Emma Clark and Nicola Tuxworth’s more experienced presence as long-time residents of the Castle.
Onstage BSL is seamlessly transitioned into the narrative as Annis makes frequent visits to Rachel Amy’s unnamed character, though their role within Annis’ life could have possible reads to Annis’ past. Janice Parker’s infusion of movement ensures there is no stillness to the production, and the direction of the physical elements encourages a flow throughout the staging, leading to a serene, and deeply moving moment of tranquillity for Annis and William, a slow and natural weaving of the more romantic nature of slow dancing, before its brisk interruption.
The only significant drawback for the production is where the lines of reality and finality emerge – though this is a fairy tale, happy endings are somewhat expected. It’s a curtly expected final act which paints the politics and matter-of-factness of it all a little too broadly as the production closes. Its pacing falls short of the rest of the show’s more tightly conceived structure.
Conceived eight years ago, trapped in limbo for three of those, to finally see Lung Ha and the Royal Lyceum’s Castle Lennox emerge onto the stage is a blessing we are fortunate enough to witness. Its elicitation of hope and cheer is as measured as its comprehension of desperation and injustice. With productions like these, we’re certainly further along the unbending road than we once were, but the real question is: “Are we there yet?”. Hopefully, in time.
Castle Lennox runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until April 1st.
Running time – Seventy-five minutes without interval. Suitable for ages 7+ Information relating to the show, and Lung Ha, may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Peter Dibdin