profane, madcap, Alice-in-Wonderland trip morphs into something much more profound in Anthony Neilson’s weirdly compelling 2004 study of mental instability. I’ve rarely seen a play made up of two such tonally different acts: and here a succinct and moving second half contextualises and clarifies the ragtag, playful first. Emma Baggott’s revival is grounded from beginning to end by a fine central performance from Leah Harvey, focused and magnetic amid external and internal disorder.
Harvey, who uses the pronouns they/them, plays Lisa, apparently a young woman in a modern city: our only anchor in time or place is that she listens to an iPod. Lisa is dispatched by a watchmender to the abstract world of Dissocia to find the hour of her life she lost when returning from New York. The watchmender drinks urine, by the way – other people’s, not his own – and Dissocia is reached by an imaginary lift that goes sideways, as well as up and down.
Once in this absurdist, cartoonish realm, the cool and logical Lisa interacts at length with two uniformed men who are desperate to be liked. They’re INSECURITY Guards! Neilson overeggs this gag, and subsequent ones about a cloven-hoofed ruminant who wants to be blamed for everything (a scapegoat, geddit?) and a hot dog stand that was a lost property office until it got lost.
When the scapegoat tries to violate Lisa – and a female council official takes her place in order to get victim numbers, if not crime numbers, down – it’s the first sign of something darker than late-period Python. That Dissocia has lost its queen and is under attack from the forces of the Black Dog hints that Lisa’s lost hour is a metaphor for depression.
Neilson originally workshopped this play with drama students, which may be why it feels deliciously free, bordering on random. The jokes are hilarious, often edgy, simultaneously clever and daft. There are two songs, again Pythonesque: a wry meditation on the nature of time from Lisa, and a light tune about death from a teddy bear in a suit.
Baggott conducts the first half like a superior panto, on primary-coloured cutout sets by Grace Smart, with deadly-earnest performances from a fine cast. It’s very funny, if sometimes forced and rambling. Laughing along, I wondered why on earth Baggott had revived something so ephemeral.
The second half brought me bracingly back to earth: in pin sharp, snapshot scenes, it deftly suggests the medical and emotional burdens that Lisa is under, necessitating her escape to Dissocia. Neilson will make jokes about just about anything, but he doesn’t trivialise or romanticise mental illness at all.
Harvey meets each twist of the script with steady aplomb, while the supporting ensemble furnish a vivid gallery of grotesques. I can understand why some might abandon this play at half time. But trust me: the experience is transformed if you stay.
Theatre Royal Stratford East, to 15 Oct; stratfordeast.com