Anthony Neilson's 2004 play is half a lark, half deadly serious. Its first act is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’-esque tumult, painting its protagonist Lisa’s journey to the pun-filled land of Dissocia. Then everything turns flat and grey, as she is sucked back into bleak reality. I suspect audiences’ responses to it will be split, too: I found myself semi-charmed, semi-infuriated by its madcap perspective on mental ill health.
Emma Baggott’s finely-tuned production certainly makes a compelling case for this play. The first act has all the bonkers, Technicolor vigour of Stratford East’s annual pantos – Grace Smart’s design fills the stage with handpainted scenery that creates the leafy forests and luridly grinning sun of Dissocia. As Lisa, Leah Harvey is cool and calm, a rational centre in a bonkers world.
At first, it seems like Dissocia is somewhere Lisa has to visit: a watchmaker tells her that it's the only place she can get back an hour she lost, on a flight to New York. She’s been lagging behind, slow, and that's why her life is a mess. But slowly, Neilson’s text shows that Dissocia is somewhere more internal, and its bizarre inhabitants are all a part of Lisa’s psyche. Like the insecurity guards (geddit?) who overanalyse their every interaction with Lisa, desperate for crumbs of affection – or the sinister scapegoat, who's desperate to be blamed for other people’s misdeeds.
These characters are seriously funny: Archie Backhouse teeters absurdly on his hooves as the goat, while Michael Grady-Hall and Tomi Ogbaro make a hilarious double act, self-consciously comparing notes on the sizes of their bums. But there's also a sense that some of Neilson’s wordplay-based jokes outstay their welcome – it’s a relief when the cast shatter the mood by breaking into the odd song, like Bear’s heartbreaking lament ‘Who'll hold your paw when you die?’
The characters only melt into vulnerability and volatility in the stark, clinical second act. Neilson fills these scenes with subtly observed moments: a tactless nurse is unbothered when Lisa’s thoughts are too scattered to read a book, telling her to wait for the film, while her sister thoughtlessly compares taking psychiatric medication to knocking back a few vitamin pills.
There’s something so poignant about the way this play shows the lure of disassociating – Lisa's compulsion to escape to the brightly coloured little world in her head. But I couldn't shake the feeling that a lot of the first act isn't really about Lisa's own, individualised mental state. Instead, it feels like a compilation of whimsical nonsense that’s slightly in love with its own cleverness, shoehorned into a serious frame.
It’s a Mad Hatter-esque vision of mental illness that feels out of date, a literary alternative to the grimmer, less captivating reality. Still, it's a world that's intriguing to visit for an hour or two, before its bright lights are suddenly extinguished.