Following successful stints at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe, Kate Barton’s psychological thriller Fast arrives at London’s Park Theatre for a limited run. Set in the early 1900s, Fast is based on the true story of American ‘Doctor’ Linda Hazzard, who was nicknamed the ‘Starvation Doctor’ and was said to be responsible for the deaths of many patients.
Despite being unqualified, Hazzard (Caroline Lawrie) is licensed to practice medicine and runs a sanatorium in Wilderness Heights, Olalla. Believing she can cure all sorts of illnesses – even cancer – by fasting her patients and ridding the body of toxins, she opens the doors of her sanatorium to the public. While some sing her praises, not all of her patients live to tell the tale… Journalist Horace Cayton Junior (Daniel Norford) decides to conduct his own investigation into the sanatorium, while wealthy British sisters Claire (Jordon Stevens) and Dora Williamson (Natasha Cowley) hear of Hazzard’s methods and believe she can cure their ailments, unaware that their stay will have deathly consequences.
Fast brings to light Hazzard’s controversial methods, including limiting patients’ diets to asparagus broth and water; and also explores why people might willingly sign up to her treatment. Kate Valentine’s direction makes the most of the intimate space of the Park and uses audio and visual effects to great effect to produce a dark and chilling production about a fascinating subject. Emily Bestow’s set although relatively simple, is delightfully eerie, resembling a run-down asylum with leaves around the edge – a reminder that the sanatorium is isolated and away from prying eyes. The set doubles as a courtroom, drawers open to reveal dining tables and beds, while a curtained bathtub lurks ominously in the background. David Chilton’s unnerving sound effects and Ben Bull’s shock lighting combine effectively to add to the creepy atmosphere throughout, helping to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
But despite the eeriness throughout, the script doesn’t quite deliver on what it promises. Despite the play being just 70 minutes long, there are times, particularly at the start, where the pacing suffers and the action drags. Things do improve however, when the story moves to the sanatorium and the sisters begin their treatment (although listening to someone being given an enema was one of the play’s more surreal moments). For a bleaker story there are a lot of lighter moments which don’t always work and Fast works better as a darker, more disturbing play. There are hints of character backstories – mentions of Hazzard’s mother – which are never developed, the doctor’s motivations aren’t fully explored, and the play fails to link Hazzard’s methods with modern-day methods, despite an obvious connection with dangerous fad diets. If anything the play needs to be longer to explore these themes further.
The cast are all effective in their roles and work well together throughout. Caroline Lawrie puts in a powerful performance as the doctor, kind and caring one moment, manipulative and cruel the next; putting audience members on edge as she makes eye contact with them. Jordan Stevens and Dora Williamson have great chemistry as the Williamson sisters, and it’s easy to see why they would both sign up to what they thought was a cure for their ailments. Jordon Stevens is particularly endearing as the naïve Claire, whose innocence inadvertently sets them on a horrific path; while Natasha Cowley is delightfully sarcastic at first, delivering her lines with deliciously dry humour, before she comes to depend on Hazzard to help her. Although Daniel Norford doesn’t really a great deal to work with until towards the end, he puts in an effective performance as the journalist who just wants answers.
Despite some flaws, there’s no denying that Fast is a chilling, creative production about an intriguing woman in history, and audiences are sure to want to know more about Hazzard and her methods. With some alterations to the script and more focus on Hazzard’s motivations, this could be a production as chilling as the true story behind the piece.
Fast is playing at the Park Theatre until 9 November.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan