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RedCape Theatre - The Idiot Colony

  • Date: 30 March 2010
  • Artform: Theatre
  • Area: South East
Photographs from The Idiot Colony, RedCape Theatre, 2009 Photographs from The Idiot Colony, RedCape Theatre, 2009, Nik Mackey

RedCape Theatre's uncompromising tale of three women trapped for decades in a mental asylum has gone from strength to strength. Starting with an Edinburgh Festival debut in 2008, The Idiot Colony toured regionally and then nationally last autumn, both made possible through Arts Council England, South East Grants for the arts funding.

The Idiot Colony is a physical theatre play set in a mental hospital hair salon in the 1980s. The show stars all three RedCape artistic directors, actors/devisors Claire Coaché, Cassie Friend and Rebecca Loukes, who bring to life the salon and the female inmates who find solace in sharing their locked up secrets and tales. Award winning visual theatre artist Andrew Dawson (Pandora 88, Absence & Presence) directed The Idiot Colony, while Bafta and Rose D'or nominated Lisle Turner wrote the script. 

RedCape researched experiences from mental health service users and professionals before writing the piece. The story's inspiration came when Claire's father mentioned stories he'd heard while working in a mental hospital's hairdressing salon during the 1980s.

Women in the Midlands hospital were locked away during the 1940s and 1950s against their will, for reasons such as lesbianism, anti-social behaviour, and for giving birth to illegitimate children from American GIs. The women suffered electric shock treatment, drug treatment and neurosurgery. Most remained unfairly locked up until their death.

The Reading-based company initially previewed The Idiot Colony at Caravan 2008, a Farnham Maltings initiative to introduce new south east work to international producers at Brighton Festival, before debuting it at Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Edinburgh was the tipping point for the show. The Idiot Colony attracted rave reviews and numerous awards, including a Scotsman Fringe First Winner and a Total Theatre Award for Best Visual Theatre. It was also short listed for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.

The Idiot Colony's brave exploration of these true, untold tales has moved audiences, not just theatre critics. 'This is the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever seen,' said a mental health worker in the audience. 'It's such a comfort to know that for a psychiatric system survivor like myself, that someone else recognizes the human rights abuses,' said another audience member. 'Thank you.'

National press was equally enthusiastic: 'Endlessly inventive, thoroughly disquieting. It's stunning; you can't help but catch your breath,' wrote the Metro.

RedCape Theatre received £11,751 Grants for the arts funding to tour The Idiot Colony across the south east in 2008. Spurred on by increasing demands for the show, they applied for further funding to do a national tour in 2009. They received £47,000, which enabled a 34-date, 25-venue tour from 23 September to 2 December 2009.

As part of their national tour, RedCape Theatre also held workshops in colleges and schools as well as post-show questions and answers, where people were able to share their own experiences.

'Arts Council England, South East have been very supportive,' said RedCape Theatre Artistic Director Cassie Friend. 'Their funding helped establish us as a theatre company and has given a national audience the opportunity to see The Idiot Colony. We particularly appreciate the support of our Arts Council officer, Jenny Roberts, whose advice has been important to the company at a crucial time.'

RedCape Theatre, which operates out of the South Street Arts Centre in Reading, is currently working on two productions, From Newbury With Love and 1 Beach Road, which are both - like The Idiot Colony - based on true stories.

From Newbury with Love tells the story of a decade long letter exchange between Newbury antiquarian booksellers and an imprisoned Soviet dissident's family in the 1970s and 1980s, inspired by an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign, and later made into a book. The show premieres at The Newbury Corn Exchange in Spring 2011 on Amnesty International's 50th anniversary, followed by a performance in Moldova and a cultural exchange programme between youth theatre groups in Newbury and Moldova.

1 Beach Road tells the stories of disappearing coastal communities in east England, who, because of coastal erosion, are literally falling into the sea. It is scheduled to tour in Autumn 2011.