It’s said that two fasting, sleepless nights are all that separates us from savagery. And the play I saw last night, Insomnia, devised by ZLS Theatre, is well endowed with the kaleidoscopic disorientation, claustrophobia and the downright maddening of such an eventuality. So far, so good.
Insomnia is a very long hour and a half, and certainly the longest I have ever spent with a silver frog in a basement
Yet, after a strange and rather muddled start, which involved the audience being ushered down the steps of the bunker-like Brunswick Cellar Bar, and then to scattered seats, mine was facing a wall, by a very camp collective - improvising, muttering, half greeting - we were very soon plunged into a drama of machine-like formalism.
Off shuffled our welcoming posse. Our hosts included a portly gent in a silver frog suit and a cardboard masked, Miyazaki version of Widow Twanky, who were only to be replaced by similar- or the same?- characters but with a stiffer, more sombre tinge.
These persons installed themselves in niches on opposing sides of the chamber and from these, enacted repetitive vignettes of slow, oh-so-slow unveiling. Round and round we went, all, naturally, in a strict round-robin order. It was like a check-in at a Fancy Dress Anonymous meeting. Sets of amateurish stop-frame animations and films -the dreams of the dream-people?- provided momentary relief, if not illumination, before we were again subjected to more ponderous exposition. Ok, we get it, somebody or something can’t sleep. This till half time.
On our return, a public headcount revealed that we’d only lost one of our select audience but it also added to a growing feeling of being strapped in for the night. Thankfully, the pace did quicken and when, mid-act, the cast began thumping and moaning in concert, the doldrums were replaced with disquiet.
Without doubt, Insomnia took some making. It has a surprisingly large cast if you include the films and many minutes of tailor-made sub-Clangers animation. Content-wise, however, it is beyond quirk. It’s frankly barmy. Marry this to its cog-like staging and even the most brilliant actor would struggle to breathe more than melodrama into these fractured soliloquies. It’s like…. well, insomnia. But not in a good way.
At times it felt like a Be Kind Rewind remake of Inside Out, but without the former’s zany wit and the latter’s intelligibility. Announced as both multimedia (ok), and multi-sensory (what – eyes and ears?), Insomnia is a very long hour and a half, and certainly the longest I have ever spent with a silver frog in a basement. If this were to be my nightly fare, I would definitely be reaching for the sleeping pills. The hard work and flashes of invention in its jamboree of symbols -for instance, a surprisingly elegant recorded piece which might have been written by a young Jeanette Winterson- sadly, do not succeed in throwing light on this universally hated condition.