Written and performed solo by Noni Townshend, this production centres on Alex, who conducts research into the effects of loneliness on people's physical and mental wellbeing. She, along with 39 other volunteers, sign up to spend four weeks in a solitary cell – with no human contact or any form of entertainment. The hour-long show alternates between Alex presenting her findings, and Alex in the solitary room.
Some aspects of the production work very well. Townshend is a believable, naturalistic actor, and there's nothing to distract from her portrayal: save for a chair, a table, and a pillow, the stage is empty. Alex starts by presenting how invaluable her study is, with potential impact on how we understand prison inmates and even on space travel, and I appreciated the gradual 'descent into madness' which subsequently ensues.
Alex's trials begin with aural hallucinations – apparently quite a common symptom – and go on to disturbed sleep, pacing when awake, and vivid visual hallucinations. From thinking of her friends and what they must be up to, to anthropomorphizing the pillow and talking to it as if it were human, Townshend remains entirely convincing. The audience is left with an array of real-life questions: what is the time beyond which irreparable damage to the psyche is caused? What is the cut-off point when readjustment into normal social life is impossible? It's certainly food for thought.
But what didn't work for me was the lecture-like structure of the play. For those not already attracted towards scientific research, the production would be slow going; with only one woman on the stage and very little visual stimulus, it would be far too easy to tune out. On the other hand, those (like me) who enjoy thought-provoking scientific enquiry may be left frustrated by the fact that we never learn if the research we're seeing is real.
Still, Townshend's play makes it easier to appreciate how close an average mind is to psychological damage, and how things we take for granted affect us deeply in our daily lives. It is a post-lunch performance, so do take your caffeine fix, and prepare for an hour of thought-provoking reflection.