Ten Days in a Madhouse Review

Jack Studio Theatre – until 2 July 2022

Reviewed by Claire Roderick


So it Goes Theatre’s production of Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Madhouse is an intimate and unsettling immersive experience. In 1887, she ambushed the editor of the New York World in his office and, refusing to accept the usual lifestyle assignments handed to women journalists, went undercover to investigate conditions at the asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Adapted and directed by Douglas Baker, the play doesn’t expand Nellie’s world for dramatic impact, instead using the immersive technology to create a sense of claustrophobic isolation alongside Nellie, while at the same time distancing the audience from the events just as the readers of the newspaper would have been. The distance, created physically by Lindsey Huebner performing behind a scrim used to project animations of characters and the use of headphones, and emotionally by the women in the asylum being represented by balloons or scratchy animation with negative faces (often resembling skulls) as Nellie describes her time in the asylum. The switch from negatives to photographs as the women’s names are listed at the end of the play reminds us that these were real victims and reclaims their humanity that was destroyed on Blackwell’s Island, making the lack of consequences for those responsible even more frustrating. Some things never change.

Lindsey Huebner gives an incredible performance as Bly, interacting with projections and recorded voices seamlessly. Her transition from self-congratulatory confidence as she first convinces the women in the “Temporary Home for Working Females” that she is mentally unstable to fear as the repetitive daily routine of brutality wears her down is written and acted so well that it is upsetting to watch. The Victorian attitude to women – the editor calls her “sweetheart” in every sentence –and the ease with which unwanted women could be disposed of by a man claiming they were insane, are highlighted in a series of faux adverts that lighten the mood with their laughable misogyny, but whose catchphrases crop up again and again in Nellie’s report as she struggles to keep hold of her sanity. The atmosphere created by Douglas Baker’s exquisite video design, together with Calum Perrin (sound) and Jonathan Simpson (lighting) effortlessly evokes the stuffy Victorian office and gloomy, filthy asylum, while the sequence where Nellie experiences the iced water bath manages to be both beautiful and disturbing.

Ten Days in a Madhouse is an ambitious and devastating production – unmissable.