Marine Furet enjoys a new production rooted in Cardiffian history at the Sherman Theatre.
‘Where local health and social services have not had the imagination or commitment to develop good services, they still resort to sending people to institutions – even though this may not do much for the person, makes it harder for their family to keep in touch and does nothing to help develop the skills needed locally.’
In 2011, nearly 40 years after the events depicted in Housemates and very near his own death of cancer at the age of 59, Jim Mansell’s anger at the inability of psychiatric institutions to care for the needs of people with learning disabilities remained intact. The Sherman’s latest production, created in collaboration with Hijinx, is faithful to the integrity and determination that set Mansell on a path to creating the UK’s first assisted living house in Ruthin Gardens, Cathays, and contributing to the closure of institutions dedicated to the seclusion and management of the so-called ‘sub-normal’, namely people born with learning disabilities. In this play, art imitates, magnifies and celebrates life beautifully, to be sure, but the original still has an edge on its dramatised version. Mansell’s legacy becomes all the more impressive when one considers that he was only 18 when he started what would turn into a lifelong fight for the rights of people with learning disabilities to live with dignity – a fact that may be concealed by the age of his on-stage performer Peter Mooney (who does a class job of portraying Mansell).
We need plays about collective action and real-life heroes even more than usual at this time, and this is maybe what makes Housemates so successful and inspiring. But another definite component of this success is the Sherman’s collaboration with Hijinx, who have established themselves as a leading company for learning disabled and autistic performers. There are a number of household names in this production, with brilliant directing from Joe Murphy and Ben Pettitt-Wade, sound and music work by James Ifan and Tic Ashfield, and fight direction from Rebecca Wilson (coming back to the Sherman behind the scenes after previous performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Imrie), but actors Lindsay Foster, Matthew Mullins and Gareth John (as Ely Hospital patients Heather, John and Alan respectively) bring a solid dose of humour and warmth to a production that we might otherwise expect to be a very serious affair.
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The production is strongly rooted in local history, but delightfully light-footed, with local jokes and nods to well-known Cardiffian landmarks. The house in Ruthin Gardens, where Jim Mansell and his friends started an experiment helping people with learning disabilities live a normal life outside the confines of Ely Hospital, became a model of best practice that spread across the rest of the UK. The whole set is bathed in the orange and sepia tones of the 70s, complete with insurrectional vibes accentuated by the riffs of guitars. The play’s use of an ensemble who sing, exclaim and respond in unison brings an energy that feels uplifting without turning cacophonic. Tunes such as ‘Children of the Revolution’ or ‘Ballroom Blitz’, beautifully sung by Natasha Cottriall, top up a production where there is a lot to see and enjoy.