Saturday, 19 October 2019

The killing cure... Fast, Park Theatre

“What a doctor really wants is a cynical patient, someone who will question their pedigree…”

Theatre can transport you and it can educate and unsettle you and even in a Thursday afternoon matinee the story of ‘Dr’ Linda Hazzard and her kill or cure quackery was deeply disturbing thanks to four superb performances and the simple truth of it all.

This is a horror story and all the more so for it being based on actuality. Also, at a time when people can believe there’s no such thing as climate change or that Donald Trump is a proper president and that Brexit is the cure to all ills – starving ourselves of favourable business terms to set our country “free”… it’s instructive to watch an ignorant ideologue at work. Perhaps the disgraced Dr Andrew Wakefield is the best modern comparison for his incredibly damaging assertion that vaccinations cause autism; his work has been completely de-bunked and yet he’s still out there preaching and has single-handedly led to the re-emergence of measles.

Hazzard was an unqualified “doctor” noted for her extreme and unscientific fasting treatments at her "sanatorium", Wilderness Heights, in Olalla, Washington. Under her “care” some forty patients died and in 1912 she was finally convicted for the murder of a wealthy British woman, Claire Williamson, whose sister, Dora, narrowly escaped the same fate being just 60 pounds when she was rescued by a relative.
Jordon Stevens and Natasha Crowley (photo Manuel Harlan)
It’s an extraordinary story and Kate Barton’s play does it justice by focusing on the two sisters as well as the mindset of their “doctor”; what made Hazzard believe she was acting in anyone’s best interest? Did she simply want the cache of medical practice, was this Munchausen syndrome by proxy or was she just a psychopath and criminal – she was found to have forged Williamson's will and stolen most of her valuables; a common criminal.

Caroline Lawrie is superb as Hazzard, portraying her as a narcissist determined to prove everyone wrong and to inflict her ideas on the unsuspecting. She has the unbending passion of a cult leader and the force of personality to dominate victims seemingly for their own good or her gratification for, as the quote at the top reveals she relished a challenge and the chance to show her superior mind.

Into her orbit comes two wealthy English travellers, the Williamson sisters Dora (Natasha Cowley who I’d last seen in the excellent Anomaly at the Old Red Lion Theatre) and Claire (Jordon Stevens) who read Hazzard’s book of nonsense, Fasting for the Cure of Disease (1908). There’s good interaction between the two; bickering familiarities and sisterly sideswipes… they’re good fun, Dora the more worldly-wise and witty, with Claire the sweetly-earnest hypochondriac with her “tipped back uterus”.
Caroline Lawrie, Jordon Stevens and Natasha Crowley (photo Manuel Harlan)
They are soon under Hazzard’s spell though as she attacks their faith in medical Doctors: “how very typical of a man to recommend that kind of nonsense to a woman…” Her use of this proto-feminist line is not so much in support of the “free spirited”, corset free sister but just building herself up against the “fake news” of the established male, medical elite.

Soon she has the sisters drugged and separated, Dora subjected to repeated enemas and both starved of protean as they grow too weak to think, move and defend themselves. Luckily Hazzard has not gone unnoticed and a journalist, Horace Cayton Jnr (Daniel Norford) is on her case… but can he break through in time to save the women?

Spoilers ahead…

Dora lived to testify against Hazzard and the bad “Doctor” was jailed for her sisters and other deaths in 1912. She was released on parole in December 1915 and the following year Governor Ernest Lister incredibly gave her a full pardon. It is suggested in the play that her friendship with his wife had played a part and she was able to start again in New Zealand. Poetic justice finally caught up with Hazzard in 1938 when she died during a fast to cure herself… finally doomed by her idiotic ideas.
Daniel Norford (photo Manuel Harlan)
Kate Valentine’s direction brings out the full flavours of Barton’s script and she maximises the narrative tension as we go from quackery to murder. Cowley and Stevens are heart-wrenchingly convincing as the sisters incapacitated and slowly losing their minds as their life of forced out of them: it’s quite uncomfortable to watch their shift from vibrant youth and very impressive physical work from both.

Daniel Norford presents the heroic figure we need amongst this darkness and Caroline Lawrie not only makes us believe in her “Doctor” but also makes us doubt ourselves from time to time; surely the true mark of a sociopathic narcissist. Takes a real pro to go to the heart of darkness and still present a rounded human being who can, fleetingly, gain our sympathy…

Caroline Lawrie
IThankYou Rating **** Macabre and harrowing, Fast never lets its subjects down and is compelling theatre which leaves you wondering how many others have suffered in the name of people who just believe they know best.

Fast is a production of Digital Drama and has already enjoyed sell-out shows at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe as well as being shortlisted for Best New Play Award 2018 by New Writing South. One to catch!


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