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The Wonderful World of Dissocia at Theatre Royal Stratford East – review

Anthony Nielson's play is revived in London

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Wonderful World of Dissocia
© Marc Brenner

Put any misgivings aside: Emma Baggott's new production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia deserves to be packed to the rafters. This revival at Theatre Royal Stratford East of the cult play is wise, sharp and fair, having all the fun possible but still interrogating Anthony Neilson's text of two decades ago. There are clear debts to the Mad Pride movement (which predates the play), but also the sense that Baggott is equal to the subtleties of consent and empathy when it comes to mental health already in the original script: it deepens the conversation. It's also the hardest I've laughed in a theatre this year.

It's not a play that's complicated in plot: Lisa (Leah Harvey), suffering from a dissociative disorder, searches for an hour she lost in an aeroplane travelling from New York when the clocks went back. Since then, she's been all out of sorts. In a brighter-than-bright land called Dissocia, there's the chance for her to regain her balance if she finds that lost hour.

The second half does indeed contain a reversal you'd expect. But the vision throughout is immaculate. Lucía Sánchez Roldán's lighting includes an ominous halo suspended above the raked dais much of the action confines itself to. Grace Smart's design, at times suggesting paper theatre with lush, bold cut-out props, has costume colour coordination to die for. Everything looks good, both unreal and awe-inspiringly built.

The absurd, pun-based characters who barely help Lisa on her quest could be tiresome in other hands, but the attention Baggott and movement director Angela Gasparetto pay to the actors' bursting, clowning physicality makes every new meeting a delight. As the Insecurity Guards, Tomi Ogbaro and Michael Grady-Hall are cringing, nervous little boys who almost share a body at times, holding hands and swearing with gusto. Accents throughout are chosen to impressive, discombobulating effect: Phoebe Naughton's screaming Aussie Britney is, at first, a frazzled hot dog vendor at (lost) Lost Property, tottering around as she sprays ketchup.

Leander Deeny's Victor Hesse, who ushers Lisa into Dissocia, is an earnest, trembly grey man, upright like a little doll, the perfect scene partner for Harvey at the play's opening. Harvey themself is so nimble as Lisa, often up on their toes as if Lisa's younger in Dissocia, and up to anything the production throws at them: sweet, resolute, and game in the first act, still recognisable though transformed in the second.

The first act is also a well-handled musical, with compositions by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite – as if it needed any more stuffing with life. A song by a polar bear is a moment of calm which lands a bit like a tune by The xx. In aesthetic this production is slightly reminiscent of the parts of The Mighty Boosh worth remembering, and the play is unabashedly a dark Alice in Wonderland, but for the most part not painfully edgy about it.

The most sensitive choices have been made around Jane, a Dissocia council worker who subs in for a brutal sexual assault and beating in Lisa's place, under a scheme to reduce the number of victims of crimes. Dominique Hamilton is a perfect, preternaturally cheery Jane with the widest eyes in the game, but the production strips out the sound of the assault specified in Neilson's script - it doesn't feel needed or a responsible choice, here.

The production succeeds in making us miss Dissocia when we're not there anymore, though the care and detail taken with the second act isn't to be sniffed at. It's a considered and cohesive whole, making a beautiful, worthy outing for Neilson's play.