The central thread of the piece is pretty straightforward. It’s 1971 and the Vietnam War is going on. A just-out-of-university Lewis, (played by Paul-William Mawhinney) agrees to help stage a theatrical performance involving the patients of a Melbourne-based psychiatric hospital. The manic depressive Roy states that despite the patients having no singing experience and self-confessedly little aptitude, they should perform Mozart’s opera, Cosi Fan Tutte. Themes of love, relationships and fidelity pop up but the real essence of the play, or at least this performance, is the interaction of the patients with Lewis and each other. That’s where the joy and poignancy come from.
There’s potential for disaster with Louis Nowra’s work. The central difficulty is that it’s set in a psychiatric facility. It’s a comedy, yet it can’t be played for cheap giggles. Other than the odd sociopath, most people feel pretty uncomfortable laughing at mental illness. As the play unfolds you are given clues as to why each character is the way he or she is which helps to contextualise their foibles. From cat arsonist Doug to uptight ex lawyer Henry, there’s method in the madness. What could have been a cast of caricatured misfits is instead an ensemble of quirkily endearing, multidimensional individuals. The highlight was Mark Little but the entire company did a great job and deserved the ovation they got at the end. The opera Cosi Fan Tutte is also running at the King’s Head and if it’s as good as the play, it’s well worth a look.
The King’s Head Pub Theatre,Islington, Until April 2nd