THEATRE / Arguing a mute point: Paul Taylor on Wild Things, Anna Reynolds's drama about life in a psychiatric hospital, at Salisbury Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
Students try to kill themselves all the time,' declares Diane (Jennifer Scott-Malden), a young patient in the secure ward of a large Victorian psychiatric hospital, 'they rarely take life seriously.' We're meant to see the comic, faintly 'Irish' side of this remark, so you wonder whether Diane herself intended that deadpan Beckettian pun on 'take life'. But then you find yourself listening especially closely to everything this girl says. Until the last few minutes of Wild Things, Anna Reynolds's new play, Diane has remained unreachable across a painful silence.

As plays like Maureen O'Brien's The Cutting have shown, a traumatically mute patient creates an unnerving parody of the normal therapy situation where the therapist has the power of silence. To this kind of relationship, Reynolds adds its mirror image, in the shape of newly admitted Johnny (Christopher McHallem), a pony- tailed rapist and killer who keeps up a constant stream of cocky suggestiveness and system-questioning, without being able to articulate what he means to say.

Emphasising the lack of privacy in these parts, Deborah Paige's production is staged within an adjustable framework set, an 'observation tank' presided over by two staff members - a disgruntled black nurse (Joy Elias- Rilwan) and Holly De Jong's unfortunately named Dr Trick (cyclist?) - who are both clearly prime candidates for a sabbatical.

Anna Reynolds had no need to research this play. At the age of 17, she was placed in a closed psychiatric ward while awaiting trial for killing her mother. Two years later, while serving sentence in Durham Prison, the conviction was quashed on the grounds of medical evidence indicating that she'd been suffering from severe hormonal deficiency. Wild Things is, in part, an indictment of how truth is a low priority in the mental health system.

It's significant that the crucial gestures of help and advice are made not by the overstressed staff, but by the inmates to one another. It's also significant that, to this member of the audience at least, the final part of the play strayed into wish-fulfilment. If this section achieves an emotional intensity at the expense of plausibility, the preceding 70 minutes seemed to be torn between giving us a garrulous run-down of all the issues surrounding psychiatric hospitals and something more patterned and poetic.

The mother-child relationship is, understandably, a charged one in Reynolds's work. Her first play, the award-winning monologue Jordan, focused on a woman who, driven insane by a former lover, killed her toddler son and, after being acquitted of his murder, took her own life. In this less skilful work, too, a maternal suicide has cast a long, blighting shadow. But here, hearteningly, when the girl breaks her silence with the word 'mother', she is referring not just to the dead woman but to her pregnant self.

To 18 Dec (0722 320117)