THEATRE / Prison of the mind: Paul Taylor on Head-Rot Holiday at the BAC, London SW11

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The Independent Culture
IF ANY normal woman tried to strike up a relationship with a convicted rapist or a serial killer, you would say she needed her head testing. At the Christmas disco in Penwell Special Hospital, though, the logic of this is turned upside down. The women detained there realise that socialising with the opposite sex will be seen as a sign of healthy readjustment and may earn them Brownie points with the parole board. So even Dee (Natasha Alexander), a butch lesbian, puts on her glad rags and braces herself to chat up the assorted male perverts. Unfortunately, one of them starts to get a kick out of telling her all the gory details of his sex crime. Outraged, she attacks him and winds up being thrown in the seclusion cell. Result: a Brownie points deficit.

Presenting a world where the style of treatment often seems considerably less sane than the prisoner-patients who receive it, Sarah Daniels's Head-Rot Holiday is the latest venture by Clean Break, a theatre company dedicated to providing a voice for women in custody and ex-offenders. To ensure its authenticity, this play was written after extensive interviews with former detainees, nurses, clinical psychologists, etc. There are times when the resulting script sounds a touch unnatural (glib, even) in its eager informativeness. But there is a fine, hard humour, as well as compassion, in the way it examines the contradictions entangling these women's lives, and Paulette Randall's production (performed by a trio of highly skilled actresses) entertains as much as it enlightens.

The point that it only takes one or two misguided moves to be put away in these last-resort places comes over strongly. The black patient, Claudia (Yonic Blackwood), was sectioned for attacking the social worker who had come with the news that her children would have to remain in care a while longer. As the conscience- stricken professional now admits, in a monologue, Claudia wasn't well enough to have her children back, but was not ill enough to be sent to a Special. The mind-warping effects of being in the hospital, we see, delay rather than hasten that family reunion.

There have been so many reports of abuse in state-run homes lately that you could be forgiven for thinking that to have a vocation as a psychiatric nurse was in itself a major disqualification for the job. I would have liked more from the play on why the nurses had been drawn to such unenviably difficult work. Instead, we see the chief nurse, who is being battered by her husband, taking it out on the prisoners and then framing other inmates. With many such details, the play conjures up a frustrating looking-glass world where it's the therapy that drives you round the bend.