The Idiot Colony
Beautiful, shocking indictment of an all-too recent past
This article is from 2008.
The opening scene of this intense, beautifully constructed piece of physical theatre lingers, unsettlingly, for days afterwards. Three girlish figures in pretty white dresses, perfectly in sync with each other, sway to a ragtime number, their faces completely obscured by shining, glossy curtains of hair so it looks like their heads are on backwards. As an image, it's reminiscent of the iconography of Japanese horror movies. What follows has more in common with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the horror is a very specifically British one, made all the more chilling by its mundanity.
The Idiot Colony, a damning indictment of the system which branded hundreds of women in the 1940s and 1950s 'moral defectives' for grievous crimes like homosexuality or having a baby as a result of childhood rape, locked them up and forgot about them, is full of similarly beautiful, stark moments. Joy, Mary and mute, suicidal Victoria are left to fuss over each other's hair in a mocked-up salon, enacting only the tamest aspects of female sexuality in bum-shaking dance routines. All three performers convey whole worlds with their faces, expressing sheer bleak confusion and sharp comedy with tiny, perfect grimaces.
The horror comes with the gradual recognition that these women have been suspended in time. The stories they reveal in flashback or reminiscence are at odds with the 1980s pop music they dance to and the chatter over the pearls in Lady Di's wedding train, and then you realise, with a jolt, that these are not women in their late 30s, as the ages of the actors would suggest, or their teens, as their mannerisms indicate. They're old. They've been locked away for 30 or 40 years, as though someone pressed pause on their development at the point where each was institutionalised.
Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, until 24 Aug (not 12, 19), £8–£9 (£6.50–£7.50).