Thatcher’s Boy Theatre’s Cracked Smiles begins formidably by having the audience walk across the stage, weaving through the actors as they sprawl casually. They stare impassively, unflinchingly holding eye contact. It is an affecting, and somewhat unnerving, beginning. A colour scheme of grey, black, and white lends the set an institutional aesthetic, and periodic historical voiceovers (among them MLK and Churchill) imbue it with a sense of historical significance.
From the very beginning we are immediately introduced to the power struggle being waged between the institution’s residents, for which the endless games of chess serve as a rather obvious metaphor. The poker chips as currency for manipulation games are a little more sophisticated, and enable a culture of corruption and exploitation to flourish. From the thinly-veiled undercurrent of aggression and persistent sexual tension two key themes emerge: power and strategy.
Nurse Luna, or the diminutive Minty, appears to be completely at the mercy of her patients, though she is supposedly their superior. While she buries her head in the sand and tends to their every whim, they run amok and terrorise her, apparently in complete control of the asylum. Malcolm is established as the de-facto leader (so long as Hummurabi is not around) and he wields this power by destabilising the other patients’ relationships and mental health, allowing him to maintain control. He is enabled in this role by the silver-tongued voyeur Michelle, whose persistent lies keep the other patients in a state of delusion.
This dysfunctional environment is only disrupted when Marty, a new patient, arrives. His unwillingness to bend to the existing power dynamic causes great disruption, and he serves as a kind of noble crusader for righteousness. Though his delivery at times falls flat, his character successfully challenges the existing status quo and legitimises Nurse Luna to retake her place as head of the asylum. There is little explanation of where Marty comes from, nor why he is so intent on defending the institution and returning the psychopaths to their rightful place. Soon the established dynamic begins to unravel as the younger patients rebel one-by-one. Where Holly, Kimmy, and Nigel once seemed petulant and unlikeable characters, the audience now begin to sympathise with them as they open their eyes to reality.
It would seem Nurse Luna’s everyman character serves as a vehicle for the audience’s own empowerment – indeed, in the words of writer and producer Kieran Gould-Dowen:
That nurse is us. And I hope, when you leave here today, you feel inspired, you begin to question the world around you, and you realise that your voice is worth something.
Suddenly the psychopaths seem less psychopathic, and the darkness of the world a little less foreboding. In a narrative dominated by corruption, perversion, and exploitation, we are now introduced to friendship, righteousness, and hope. Cracked Smiles truly presents a captivating tale, and serves as an arresting metaphor for the ills of our society at large.
Cracked Smiles is on at Chapel off Chapel from 17 – 22 July. Tickets, show details and accessibility information can be found at the Chapel off Chapel website.