Nottingham New Theatre’s Madhouse takes place in a student kitchen. Straight away we are immersed in a babble of noise as six students sit around the table, drinking and chatting. One by one, Billy—the laid-back, fun-loving student—introduces them to the audience. There’s Soniya, the organised medical student; Ollie, who dreams of being a writer; Annie, the aspiring actor, Lisa; a social media influencer; and her slightly dim-witted boyfriend Goose. Over the course of forty minutes, a chaotic account of student life filled with drunken hook-ups, financial worries and friendship unfolds.
The introduction to each character is brief which makes it difficult to remember their names, but that doesn’t really matter. As their personalities are all so unique, there’s no chance of confusing them, which can be difficult to achieve when there are six characters. The chemistry between them is fantastic, and they capture the essence of a mismatched group of first year university students perfectly.
Out of all the characters, Annie’s character arc felt the most complete. After the first few scenes it’s easy to dismiss her as a popular, carefree student, but as the play progresses, we learn that she has her own worries and struggles. All of the acting was brilliant, but I was particularly impressed with Lisa: she was dramatic and self-absorbed without being over the top.
The amount of material squeezed into the production is impressive and the play touches on themes of mental health and sexuality alongside the overarching plot of Ollie and Annie’s relationship. The only storyline that feels completely unrealistic is Soniya’s pregnancy scare: it seems unlikely that a medical student would declare herself pregnant without doing a test.
Unfortunately, forty minutes isn’t long enough to fully explore these themes, which resulted in the production feeling unfinished. The cliff-hanger where the play ends feels more suited to a TV episode and it’s disappointing that we don’t find out what happens to the characters. A second act would have been beneficial—and very welcomed—in order to explore some of these themes further.
Shows about university students can sometimes feel overdone, but the characters’ charm makes Madhouse feel unique. Of course there are plenty of references to stereotypical aspects of student life, such as pesto pasta and all-nighters to complete assignments, but these don’t feel excessive. The play was a joy to watch, and it was lovely to see live theatre return as part of the Fringe.
Madhouse will be performed at theSpace @ Surgeons’ Hall on 23, 25 and 27 August as part of Edinburgh Fringe. Tickets can be purchased online.
Words by Ellen Leslie
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Image Credit: Nottingham New Theatre // theSpaceUK