Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre review: Magdalen, reviewed by The Scotsman’s Susan Mansfield.
Erin Layton’s one-woman show begins in Ireland in the 1990s, at a building formerly used as a Magdalen Laundry. In these commercial laundries run by the Magdalen Sisters, “fallen women” were forced to labour in harsh conditions in the belief that they could cleanse the sin from their souls by scrubbing other people’s dirty laundry. The building is now a hostel for the homeless, and the owner is clearly uncomfortable with the fact that yet another artist is asking questions about its past.
Layton’s tight, well-structured script, which she performs herself, then turns the clock back to the 1940s, and shows us life inside the laundry walls. It’s a marvellous performance in which she shifts adeptly between the characters: the nuns, a priest and the women themselves, from an unwed mother to a brothel madam, to one whose chief crime seems to have been being “feeble-minded, deaf and dumb”.
It would be easy for a piece of work like this to be unremitting in its bleakness, but Layton creates subtlety and nuances: not all the Sisters are cruel, and the women themselves display a range of attitudes, from penitence to despair to angry defiance.
Perhaps the most engaging is wide-eyed Child of Mary, soon to become a Magdalen Sister herself, who is forced to ask some tough questions as the play unfolds.
We see the harshness: the work is back-breaking, the women forbidden to talk to one another, accidents are covered up and mothers denied the right to see their children. But these things are woven into a well crafted, sympathetic piece of theatre which leaves us not only better informed but somehow the richer for having seen it.
Paradise in the Vault (Venue 29) until 30 August / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 27 August 2015
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