Kate Barton’s play is a thriller with serious ideas behind it. A fasting ‘cure’ for all diseases, practised by ‘Dr’ Linda Hazzard – did the name warn nobody? – illustrates the historical popularity of dangerous diets and our continued fascination with true crime. Both factors make this story from 1910 resonate with a contemporary audience. And just as pleasingly, Barton skilfully highlights the sinister to present an effective, even camp, frightener that is thoroughly entertaining.
There is a problem with the doctor’s victims, two English sisters who come across as too gullible. While Natasha Cowley and Jordon Stevens do a good job, especially as their characters succumb to lunatic Linda’s “beautiful treatment”, these well-off walking well aren’t credible. That they really existed, and went off on a whim to be starved, doesn’t help the drama (the phrase “you couldn’t make it up” springs to mind). I suspect Barton knows this; she tries hard to add colour to the roles but mentions of suffrage and Picasso ring hollow and attempts at humour fall flat. It’s only the horror of the situation that grips.
Thankfully, Fast has plenty going for its other protagonists. Daniel Norford has a lovely role as a reporter determined to expose what’s going on. Barton juggles the “muck-raking” hack’s – and the media’s – mixed motives when it comes to sensationalism and misogyny. The introduction of court room scenes is expertly handled. Eventually, Norford makes a convincingly heroic figure – and it’s nice to see a press man cast as such.
The play’s success comes down to its villain. Barton maintains an element of eccentricity to Hazzard that works well in the hands of Caroline Lawrie, who isn’t scared of exaggerating. A flair for the theatrical is delivered as impressively as Lawrie’s scary stare. She even manages to make moving the set around spooky and stage manages the action by being in charge of the lights!
As well as Ben Bull and Dan Bywater’s excellent lighting design, director Kate Valentine’s production boasts a great soundtrack (well done David Chilton) and plenty of tension. Maybe, given its subject matter, Fast shouldn’t be quite so much fun. But just how delicious a story this horrible can be, a fact lost on neither the newspapers of the day or Barton, is food for thought in its own right.
Until 9 November 2019
Photos by Manuel Harlan