Calgary Fringe – Bedlam – Review


Alexandra Society

June 29, 30, August 1, 2, 4 and 5

I’m embarrassed to say that I broke the #1 rule of fringing on the first night of this year’s Calgary Fringe Festival – ALWAYS get there early!!! I had planned on seeing This Is Our Youth this eve, but by the time I showed up, the play was sold out and not even my fancy-shmancy media credentials could help me worm my way in. Serves me right! And good for This Is Our Youth!! I’m delighted the production is a solid draw and I will for sure show up in plenty of time to catch tomorrow’s performance. Reviewer’s honour!

So, after scrambling around to find another performance that tickled my fancy, I settled on the one man show Bedlam, described in the program as “the true story of the father of modern lobotomy and his horrific quest to end mental illness”. A heady subject for sure (pun intended) but it certainly sounded interesting and relevant and as those of you who read me regularly know….I like the dark stuff. Fortunately for me, my mistake earlier in the evening paid off. Bedlam is an interesting and disturbing slice of history told with tense dialogue and barely-there staging.

Alexander Forsyth who wrote and stars in the play as Dr. Walter Freeman, the doctor infamous with brining lobotomy to America and then tweaking the procedure to make it his own, gives a strong one hour performance that is full of audience discomfort in all the right places.

The play opens with Dr. Freeman reading from medical files describing his psychiatric patients and how drug and therapy cures have resulted in no long-term cure. Freeman reads these histories without any empathy or compassion. Instead, he’s frustrated that he isn’t able to overcome these medical obstacles and create a name for himself. I instantly took a dislike to him. And then became worried as to how I was going to watch this cold-hearted unpleasant character for a solid hour. But once I settled in and understood the characterization Forsyth was projecting, it all made sense to me. I wasn’t supposed to like him. Dr. Freeman was (in this play) a careerist who was smarmy, bitter and ultimately after his own glory.

Freeman goes on to explain his discovery of lobotomy, his retoling the procedure, his minor successes and all the failures and wrecked lives he caused, including his disasterous operation on Joe Kennedy’s daughter Rosemary that left her comotosed.  All this while claiming to be the only one who truly cares about the mentally ill and their suffering. It’s difficult to listen to, but fascinating at the same time. Like staring at a car crash, I couldn’t help but be engrossed in the gruesome details of the operations including a very nauseating and graphic description of his orbital lobotomy procedure.

This type of ghastly curiosity only works because Forsyth is telling a true story. A slice of history that is important to hear about for anyone interested in the medical and mental health fields. Frankly, I think it’s an important story about the nature of human behaviour and how we treat each other…but I’ll leave the preaching to someone else.

The play also works due to Forsyth’s strong acting. Bedlam is a wordy play with little to no action and Forsyth does an admirable job of characterization to keep the audience tuned in. At times the script gets away from him in a jumble of overly technical phrasing, the story can feel shallow and repetitive in moments and the downfall ending felt a little flat. But blips aside, Bedlam is a solidly written and acted play that both teaches and intrigues.


For the guys – Is it manly to listen to stories about digging around in someone’s brain? Whether it is or not, you’ll like the science and the medicine and find the lack of bedside manner thought-provoking. SEE IT

For the girls – The absence of patient empathy and the gory descriptions might not be to your taste. SKIP IT

For the occasional audience – Not a lot happens, there is no set to speak of and it’s a heavy script. Probably not for you. SKIP IT

For the theatre junkies – Fresh story, well-written and strongly-acted. Well worth your time. SEE IT

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