The sounds of dripping water and disembodied laughter welcome us into this unusual, seductive show. A one-woman performance from actress and singer Monica Salvi, Mad Women In My Attic scours the music books for cabaret standards with insanity as a theme. Taken out of context, stitched together and re-hashed, the songs tell a new story about Salvi’s imagined life – one that combines genuine sensitivity with impressive music-hall bravura.
Salvi’s arrival – in top hat, veil and fish-net stockings, unfolding herself from behind a piano – embodies everything that’s dangerous and alluring about the twilight world of cabaret. But cleverly, her show melds that harmless frisson into a rather darker one: suddenly, the confident performer becomes a far more vulnerable figure, pinned in an imaginary straightjacket. That juxtaposition, of the fun-loving show-girl with a damaged mind, proves a highly effective foundation for a musical revue.
My favourite of all the numbers, Apathetic Man by Jean Stilwell & Patti Loach, didn’t really fit the theme; but I’ll forgive that, because Salvi’s delivery of it is just so straight-up funny. Elsewhere though, we have songs of murderers and victims, the wicked and the insane – most of them catchy, some of them poignant, and all of them performed with style. Salvi certainly has a fine voice, and is equally able to hold the stage, with transitions in and out of melodrama a recurring highlight of her act.
The audience is also invited to join in the fun. On the night I attended, she may have got more than she bargained for with one of her “volunteers”, who was very much up for a routine with echoes of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Another entertaining set-piece, which sees four audience members crammed onto a sofa for a comedy number about a murderous dinner-party, also served well to break up the pace.
So I enjoyed the show a lot, but I do have a couple of reservations. The first is that Salvi’s performance is unremittingly expansive: big songs, big gestures, big imagery. It’s a style she makes her own, but I’d have liked a more nuanced counterpoint – the occasional lower-key moment to add some texture to the tone.
My second concern – and this is more of a philosophical one – is whether the show’s archaic portrayal of “madness” is entirely fit for the modern age. A sensitive, realistic treatment of mental illness this most certainly is not; but then again, nor does it claim to be. Whether or not you’re bothered by that is something only you can decide. For what it’s worth, as someone with reason to be alert to these issues, I thought the stereotypes were gothic and knowing enough to be excused.
In the end then, Mad Women In My Attic is an unexpected gem of a show: like a collage made from scavenged fabrics, it’s more than the sum of its already-delightful parts. If you like the darker side of cabaret, you’d be mad to pass this one by.