Time-flies, sadistic scapegoats and morbid, singing polar bears – where else could we be but The Wonderful World of Dissocia? Anthony Nielson’s weird and wondrous play about one woman’s experience of mental illness is revived with endearing enthusiasm by Clatterhouse Theatre. Frustratingly though, as enjoyable enough as this buoyant production is, it still lacks the necessary emotional depth to be very much more than that.
The Red Hedgehog venue offers up some suitably Lynchian atmospherics, painted scarlet from carpet to ceiling with sunflowers and fairy lights bursting through the floor. The play starts as it means to go on, with a pervading sense of utter strangeness. A rather odd Swiss watchmaker arrives at the house of the seemingly sound-minded Alice (Charlotte Reid), bearing news that it’s not her watch that’s broken, but her. Having lost an hour of time somewhere along the way, Alice’s life has, by her own account, descended into chaos. All that she has to do to restore the balance, her unlikely confidante promises her, is to find that hour. Simple enough… or not. To recover the hour, she has to venture into a bizarre land, tellingly called ‘the divided states of Disoccia’, a place populated by a cast of troubled and tantalising characters who promise Alice that they love her more than anyone else ever will.
It takes a while for the multirole-playing cast to get into their stride, but once they do, they certainly take on the kind of manic energy Nielson must have intended. The ‘insecurity’ guards (George Fouracres and Ben Kavanagh) serve as a delightfully gloomy warm-up act, ‘welcoming’ Alice to Disoccia like an Eric and Ernie tribute act gone terribly wrong. Throughout, there are marvellously detailed performances from Kavanagh in particular, as well as a gloriously over-done turn by Abi Tedder as a professional ‘victim’, embodying hilarity on the verge of hysteria. It has to be said that, gifted with such a vibrant text, Clatterhouse Theatre’s revival gets a lot of its magic for free. Nielson’s play is a maddening and beautiful thing – sprawling and surprisingly complex, inflicting itself upon the audience with a playful brutality.
To the detriment of this production, however, playfulness has chosen to dominate. Just like Carroll’s Wonderland, Dissocia has darkness as well as light, and this is exactly where the production falters, failing to balance pantomime with suitable poignancy. As an audience, we find ourselves relying too much on wacky characters to enliven the action, rather than being swept up by the somewhat neglected narrative. Often scenes descend into merry but incoherent chaos, and whilst it’s good to see a cast enjoying themselves so immensely, I can’t help but think that the production might benefit from a little restraint. After all the wild exuberance of the first half, the second act (set in a psychiatric ward) is a drawn-out disappointment, rather than the sobering reality-check that it should be. Though Charlotte Reid is refreshingly level-headed as the heroine, she gives very little clue as to the nature of Alice’s inner turmoil, denying us insight into the disorder the play ultimately aims to explore. Unfortunately, without any sense of psychological incisiveness, The Wonderful World of Dissocia comes across as a work of whimsy rather than any perceptive engagement with what can be a devastating experience. All in all, a depiction a little too ‘wonderful’ for comfort.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia is playing at the Red Hedgehog Theatre until 28 July. For more information and tickets, see the Red Hedgehog Theatre website.