Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Alice in Wonderland with "sex and Violence"

The Wonderful World of Dissocia
A Play by Anthony Neilson
Act One
Venue: Cardiff YMCA
Dates: 8th-12th March 2011
Directed by Ellie Barrow and Natasha Clarke
Reviewed by Chelsey Gillard

As the writer himself puts it "If you like Alice in Wonderland but there’s not enough sex and violence in it, then Dissocia is the show for you".  This zany show follows a young lady, Lisa (Sophie Herrman), on her journey to retrieve an hour she lost when travelling through different time zones. She believes when she has found the time she lost her frantic life will regain balance and harmony.

Her search leads her to Dissocia; an odd land full of “Little Britain” –on- speed-esque characters; that we eventually learn is all part of her imagination. The In-security officers she meets on first arrival were hilarious. Constantly doubting themselves and their job role, they were an accurate, if exaggerated, illustration of all the red tape one must endure to enter a country in fear of terrorist attacks. Chris Paisley and Ed Thomas had real camaraderie in the roles, bouncing off each other well without trying to outdo each other, they displayed Anthony Neilson’s excellent command of the English language and got a laugh for every subtle (and blindingly obvious) gag.

To enter the land of Dissocia Lisa must take an oath of loyalty to the country’s Queen Sarah; cue Greg Davies as the booming Oathtaker, followed by his entourage who answer his cry of “Oathtaker” with “Oatcake Eater” and a tray of the snacks. All involved in this scene were on the ball and beautifully performed a song to welcome Lisa to the land, but as I will explain later they really outdid themselves soon after in other roles. We learn that Dissocia is under constant threat of bombing by the Black Dog and his soldiers, who wish to capture Queen Sarah but do not know who she is as everyone has forgotten what she looks like, including herself.  

Sophie comforts Scapegoat Aled
As her journey continues Lisa bumps into a miserable, Aled Bidder, as Gavin Loxley the Scapegoat who never gets blamed for anything. In an attempt to cheer him up Lisa blames him for stealing her hour, suddenly he is tying her up to hand her over to the Black Dog as a lost hour is a great source of power. While he waits for his dark master Gavin decides to beat and rape Lisa, stating “there’s no smoke without fire” when Lisa says she thought scapegoats got blamed for things they DIDN’T do. Throughout Aled was unflinching in his delivery and didn’t shy away from the more intimate moments. How he kept a straight face I don’t know!

Luckily the attack was interrupted by Emily Napier as Jane, a government worker who becomes the victim of all crimes, in an attempt to reduce crime rates in the nation. It turns out the scheme has failed, crimes have actually doubled but the number of victims was down to one – her- therefore in government eyes a success. Emily showed real promise as a character actress but for some reason the audience didn’t seem to warm to her as much as other characters. She used both her voice and body well, and with more development I think she could be great in physical theatre.

Having narrowly avoided a horrific attack Lisa is greeted by a Bi-Polar bear, who has written a song to cheer her up. Reminiscent of a big, white, fluffy Eeyore Alex Mann was perfect. His lethargic voice and bumbling, unbending walk made you feel sorry for the overgrown teddy bear. He deservingly received a huge round of applause as he shuffled offstage having renewed not only Lisa’s but the whole audiences’ belief in the goodness of animals.

By far the best scene in the play, Lisa finally finds Lost Property, where she hopes to find her hour. Lost Property it seems is also a hotdog stand; tucking into anaemic sausages are a bunch of misfits who have lost various items. Ryan Atkinson it seems has lost the argument, constantly picking fights he cannot win; Simon Gibbs gives out the best belly laughs at completely inappropriate times, he has lost his sense of humour; but the worst thing to lose, your inhibitions, is lost by James Paine who very bravely stands up from behind his table to reveal a bare bottom and nothing on his lower half but a jock strap!

Owner of lost property, Britney (Grace Kendall), is a hard, almost chavvy lady, who is more interested in bullying her chef Biffer than actually helping anyone. Biffer marked the return of the incredible Greg Davies, who was painfully funny as the greasy, mumbling man. Everyone put their all into making this scene work with great ad lib. lines and perfect timing. It was the most surreal scene and was therefore the most powerful, especially when Aled Bidder reappeared as a glasses wearing, banjo playing, giant hotdog.

In a weird twist of events from here it turns out two of the customers are actually part of Queen Sarah’s royal guard and Lisa is rather predictably the monarch. Nathalie Bolding and Simon Gibbs were fantastically camp as the over-the-top Musketeer types who lead the citizens of Dissocia into battle against the Black Dog. And if he hadn’t already, Greg Davies completely stole the show as he stood quivering brandishing two limp frankenferters as weapons.    

The second half I feel tried to make its point too hard, without much substance. Repetitive blackouts showed the passing of time in the hospital where Lisa is actually a psychiatric patient. She is treated by familiar faces from the first half who it appears have made their way into her subconscious and are therefore characters in her imaginary world of Dissocia. One flaw was the costumes worn by the male characters in this act, they were clearly female nurse uniforms that fitted badly and therefore got laughs from the audience when there should be none, blurring the contrast that should have been obvious between act one and act two.

Not very much happens in this act, we do get a sense of her loneliness and vulnerability in the healthcare system but it has no real meat. We never get an explanation of Lisa’s condition or treatment or even the reason behind why she would choose not to take her medication. Little research seemed to have been done by the writer, Lisa seemed to be in a private room in the hospital and although I know this was to emphasise her solitude, surely it is far more harrowing to be surrounded by others with mental health issues but not being able to connect or engage with them, let alone being an inaccurate representation of the current state of the NHS.

Moving speeches made by Ben Atterbury as Vince, Lisa’s boyfriend and Emily Napier as her sister Dot, show the cast is capable of emotion as well as humour. They do give a sense of the frustrations you face when dealing with someone with mental health issues but both are portrayed as rather callous and unfeeling, this I feel is a fault with the writing rather than the acting. The plot and characters are over simplified to show how much of a victim of society Lisa is, but it forces this down your throat and made me personally become disinterested in Lisa’s plight. 
Artwork from the Poster

Sophie Herrman handled the role of Lisa very well; when in Dissocia she had a certain innocence, without naivety that was refreshing and helped the audience go along with the mad-cap antics. The monologues were nicely delivered but sometimes lacked focus, it was unclear who she was addressing and why, perhaps this was intentional due to the character’s mental illness and lack of identity but I feel a more direct approach would have been more effective. In the darker second half Sophie’s professional conduct was apparent, she hit every cue and the lights never came up on her fumbling with props. The wild emotions of the mentally ill young woman were dealt with, with sensitivity even if the fake crying did become a bit repetitive. Definitely one to watch out for in future productions.

Overall the play was really enjoyable with many laugh out loud moments and was successful as a comic satire of the governments’ and societies’ current attitudes. I feel if more work had gone into the second act in the writing stage it would have been much more hard hitting. Once again Act One has produced a highly polished production that I’m sure will be talked about for years to come.

For more reviews visit:  HyperCritic Reviews

For more info on Act One : click here
Their  next production is Twelfth Night, also performed in the YMCA theatre, from Tuesday 15th to Sat 19th March. Tickets available from Cardiff Union Box Office.

Cast List
Ryan Atkinson – Passenger, attendant, argument
Ben Atterbury – Vince
Aled Bidder – Gavin Loxley, musician
Nathalie Bolding – Passenger, attendant, ticket
Greg Davies – Oathtaker, Biffer
Simon Gibbs – Passenger, attendant, laughter
Sophie Hermann – Lisa
Grace Kendal – Britney
Alex Mann – Victor, Bi-polar bear
Emily Napier – Jane, Dot
James Paine – Passenger, attendant, inhibitions
Chris Paisley – Guard 1
Ed Thomas – Guard 2

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