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The Divided Laing review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘fun and thought-provoking’

Alan Cox and Oscar Pearce in The Divided Laing at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Alan Cox and Oscar Pearce in The Divided Laing at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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This new play by theatre writer and critic Patrick Marmion explores the wacky world of 1960s radical psychiatrist RD Laing on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the influential Philadelphia Association, which Laing co-founded, and of his experimental asylum at Kingsley Hall in Bromley-by-Bow.

It begins in 1970 with Laing and his colleagues — who include David Cooper (South African anti-psychiatrist), Aaron Esterson (Laing’s Glaswegian collaborator), Joseph Berke (American therapist) and Mary Barnes (nurse and former patient) — facing eviction. Their new methods of using immersive therapy rather than medication, shock treatment or lobotomy have alienated them from the general public.

As Laing and Cooper go on a drugs binge together, and Esterson tries to steer the therapeutic collective in a more mainstream and socially acceptable direction, Marmion’s play takes off imaginatively and time travels to the present, where Laing can see the ups and downs of his anti-psychiatric legacy. Amid the jokes and the wildness, some strong political points are made and Laing’s reputation is rehabilitated.

Michael Kingsbury’s energetic production, on Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s set, can boast convincing and enjoyable performances from Alan Cox as the psychiatric guru Laing, Oscar Pearce as the irrepressibly stoned Cooper and Kevin McMonagle as the more serious Esterson. Good support also comes from Laura-Kate Gordon (Mary), James Russell (Joe) and Amiera Darwish (Laing’s imaginary partner).

Also known as The Two Ronnies, the play is a surreal comedy that takes a while to warm up and meanders slightly towards its end. But it offers both a sincere tribute to one of the 20th century’s most radical, and now underrated, thinkers and a thought-provoking evening.

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An imaginative celebration of 1960s anti-psychiatry guru RD Laing that is both fun and thought-provoking