Review by Melinda Haunton
Are you in the mood for a Halloween scare story? Because the Park Theatre have a (questionably) mad (questionably) scientist tale for you, complete with flickering lights, spooky music and horrid reveals from behind a curtain.
Fast is a new work by Kate Barton, set in a scary sanatorium in Washington state, in 1910. It has hapless victims: the Williamson sisters, English travellers suffering a mix of wealth, independence and vague health pangs, who positively beg to be swindled. It even has an intrepid reporter (Horace Cayton Jr, of the Seattle Republican – played with honour by Daniel Norford) on the trail of that sinister medical professional. Said scientist goes by the name of Doctor Linda Hazzard, who entices the wealthy and lonely into her remote sanatorium, and subjects them to fasting treatments which amount to little more than starvation. (And enemas. Lots of enemas.)
Caroline Lawrie, as Hazzard, plays a splendid melodramatic villain as she entices the Williamsons into her clutches with assurances of rectifying their vague physical ailments. She makes great play, to the sisters and the audience, of her struggle to be recognised as a doctor, in a world of sexist restrictions. It’s neat to have a baddie who uses feminist sloganeering as cover for something genuinely nefarious. Her protests at the press are full of offended ego, and we’d tend to sympathise. But Cayton uncovers evidence that Hazzard’s health cures are genuinely killing her patients, and we see just how the Williamsons are undone by her regime, in a few short weeks.
It’s a barnstorming 70 minute piece, from setup, through the terrorising of the sisters and some genuine shocks, interspersed with excerpts from Hazzard’s subsequent trial, due in part to Cayton’s dogged investigation. The atmosphere is terrific, helped by an eerie set which mixes surgical green paint with tattered sheeting and hints of dense woodland. This sanatorium is in its own little world, and it’s not a healthy one.
As a grimly engaging theatrical snack, I’d recommend Fast. But there are hints of something more complex which never quite play out. Hazzard’s motivations remain pretty obscure, though money certainly plays a part. The play is based on historical events, and the very real deaths of patients under Hazzard’s ‘care’ sit awkwardly next to this semi-comic villainy. Barton tries to give us context, referencing other practitioners of the ‘fasting cure’ to situate Hazzard in a wider tradition. But we don’t get much more insight than this. The Williamson sisters never read her book, never really engage with the concept of fasting as a solution to modern ills. I left unsure whether Hazzard believed her own propaganda, or was simply a bravado swindler using nascent feminism to cloak her wrongdoing. Without this central motivation, it trembles on the edge of being an episode of People Do The Horridest Things.
Fast is at the Park Theatre until 9 November, tickets £18