Antony Sher stars as Sigmund Freud in Terry Johnson’s revival at the Hampstead Theatre

Antony Sher as Sigmund Freud
Antony Sher as Sigmund Freud

Terry Johnson‘s delicious farcical three-way involving Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali and the dysfunctional daughter of an abused mother is not only unusually funny, but tenaciously unusual.

Exactly 20 years on from Phyllida Lloyd‘s brilliant staging at the Royal Court with Henry Goodman as Freud, Johnson’s own production for the Theatre Royal, Bath last year arrives at last on home territory; Freud did actually meet Dali in Elsworthy Road in 1938, just around the corner, and the play – accurately and affectionately designed by Lez Brotherston – is set in what is now the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens.

Antony Sher, hilariously weighing each line with the laboured intensity of a man charging much more than a penny for his thoughts, is a haunted, hunted Freud on the brink of death (cancer of the mouth was eating into him), attended by David Horovitch‘s lugubriously straight-faced Jewish doctor Yahuda.

These two are now joined by Adrian Schiller‘s hyper-ridiculous Dali (replacing Will Keen at Bath) and Lydia Wilson‘s (nut)case history Jessica (instead of Indira Varma). Weirdly, Freud has lately seen a performance of Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook (a play Johnson directed at the Menier Chocolate Factory four years ago) and is prey to every door that opens or shuts, every squall of rain, every gust of wind.

Lydia Wilson (Jessica), Antony Sher (Freud), David Horovitch (Yahuda) and Adrian Schiller (Dali)
Lydia Wilson (Jessica), Antony Sher (Freud), David Horovitch (Yahuda) and Adrian Schiller (Dali)

It’s farcical payback time for the diagnostic fraudster, and as if that alone isn’t enough, Yahuda has news of Kristallnacht in Berlin, ponderously suggesting that Freud won’t be the only Jew to die this year. Dali, who sees himself as Freud’s artistic successor, finds girls in cupboards, trousers round his ankles (pulled down by his mentor) and produces a bizarre flourish of naked elderly figments in a glass case.

Dali as a walking bundle of tics, anxieties and sexual neuroses – he didn’t paint the Great Masturbator for nothing – is just about right, and Schiller is a joy to watch as the lunacy escalates around him, as if he had nothing to do with it. And Wilson skilfully treads a fine line between vulnerable patient and avenging harpy in her Freudian slip.

The famous Stoppardian tableau of the bicycle pump, the Wellington boot and Anna Freud’s knickers embroils all three iconic characters in a sculpture that suggests the Freud museum in Hampstead is turning into the Dali museum in Figueres. For this is the ultimate farce as a dream play, and Sher’s compelling, distraught protagonist, wild-eyed, bearded and heavily accented, is his own worst nightmare. Great stuff.