Review: Head-Rot Holiday

4 star rating
Fine acting and meticulous direction document the treatment of women in special units in the early 1990s, and the play still proves relevant in warning of unbridled state control.
Head-rot Holiday at Hope Theatre

Image: Hope Theatre

Theatre: Hope Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 22 December 2018

Sarah Daniels

Will Maynard


Emily Tucker - Ruth/ Barbara/ Helen

Evlyne Oyedokun

Amy McAllister - Dee/ Jackie/ Chris


'Christmas is a right frightening bastard.

If you can survive it in here then there's hope'.

December 1991.

In a special hospital for the criminally insane, three women prepare for the Christmas disco.

The parole board's recipe for early release: put on a dress, wear some make-up … and dance with a rapist or killer of your choice.

Ruth hears voices but distracts herself with karaoke.

Claudia defies the racist nurses and longs to see her children.

Dee applies mascara for the first time and is paid a visit by an angel.

Behind iron bars, the patients and nurses of Penwell Hospital ask: in such a topsy-turvy world, who are you to say that I'm insane?


Head-rot Holiday was first staged by Clean Break, a theatre company dedicated to giving a voice to women in the criminal justice system.

Nearly two decades later, Weighed In mounts a special revival of this irreverent dark comedy from one of the most important feminist writers of her generation, Sarah Daniels (Masterpieces).

With contributions from mental health charities and prison reform groups, this production celebrates how far our attitudes to mental health have evolved whilst providing a platform for discussion on the work that is left to do.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Saturday 8 December 2018
Review star rating image

The Hope Theatre is a flexible space where the seating can be reconfigured in different layouts.

In this instance, the acting area is located immediately inside the entrance door, with the audience sitting at the back and sides.

That means we have to walk through a ward in a 'special' hospital where the play is set.

As we do that, we're met by some of the patients and, when the play starts, Amy McAllister's nurse Jackie flings newly-washed clothes back to us from her laundry basket.

Though this isn't a play with very much in the way of audience involvment, there's enough to make us feel just a little unsettled given the locational context, and reminding me of a disqueiting visit to a hospital for severely disturbed teenagers some years ago

The play is set in 1991 in a women's ward in a secure psychiatric unit.

Comprehensive programme notes provide background to the plight of women in such units in the early 90s.

That information makes for uneasy reading given that women were often treated like children with little control over their daily lives, often supervised by inadequately trained staff and exposed to inappropriate and inhumane bahaviour.

And those issues were just the tip of a hugely disquieting iceberg that characterised how women were treated in those units.

It's almost Christmas and preparations are underway for a disco.

Interwoven into the plot, we learn more about the patients' stories and their lives in the ward as well as the attitudes of staff.

Along the way, we're confronted with self-harm, women being put into isolation - or 'seclusion' as it's called here - for extended periods, and women grossly over-medicated so that they appear like zombies, almost unable to walk.

Will Maynard exerts meticulous and sensitive direction, given the complexity and discomfitting nature of the subject matter, employing well-selected music to appropriately enhance the piece.

And Chanto Silva's simple but effective design aptly evokes a rather spartan and unhomely hospital setting.

But it's the standout, totally authentic acting that really leaves the enduring impression.

Just three, very fine actors provide all the characterisations here - nurses and patients - requiring considerable gear-changes that are effortlessly effected and provide totally real and well-differentiated characters - compelling stuff.

Cats of Head-Rot Holiday at the Hope Theatre

(From left) Emily Tucker, Amy McAllister, Evlyne Oyedokun - photo c Mark Overall

Head-Rot holiday is obviously still important in documenting the unacceptable treatment of women in special units back in the early 1990s - it's right that we don't forget the mistakes of the past.

But it leaves us with the big question about just how much has changed in the system in the intervening years and how much more needs to be done to make these institutions truly caring, humane and better able to provide meaningful and appropriate treatment.

The play, though, has wider implications regarding the safeguards and protections which must apply when the state is given unbridled control over individual lives.

In that sense, Sarah Daniels' well-written, absorbing yet disturbing play has power enough to be a still-relevant warning about both the authority of the state and the way individuals, especially those less able to assert their rights, are dealt with in our society.

Well-worth catching.

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