Review by Daz Gale
You might most commonly hear about theatre in the West End but the East has its own amazing offering of theatre to enjoy. If you venture there at the moment, you will find a delightful surprise, both in the theatre and the show itself as the gorgeous Theatre Royal Stratford East hosts a new production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia – well worth the travel to the end of the Earth, I mean the jubilee line.
Written by Anthony Neilson, The Wonderful World of Dissocia was first workshopped in 2007 and made its London debut at the Royal Court in 2007. A poignant and comical look into the world of mental illness, it tells the story of a young woman named Lisa who suffers from dissociative disorder and steps into the world of Dissocia to recover an hour of her life that she has lost. The narrative structure sees the show split in two very distinctive parts – one showing the colourful world known as “Dissocia” and the sobering, dark and gritty reality.
The world of Dissocia is beautifully realised, a bold, colourful and exuberant mess which feels like a mix of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland… on acid. Through Lisas time in Dissocia, we meet some wonderfully weird characters who represent different aspects of mental health. In the same vein as Disney’s movie Inside Out representing different aspects of a personality, we meet Insecurity Guards and a very literal Scapegoat. The deliberate use of cardboard set gives a nod to the fact this world is completely artificial, with gorgeous set and costume design by Grace Smart effortlessly welcoming us into this world.
The cast is led by Leah Harvey as Lisa. Treading the careful balance between comedy and the serious undertones to the story, they give a masterful performance full of authenticity and sensitivity, giving a versatile approach depending on the mood of the character and the situation they find themselves in, showcasing an extreme versatility in acting ability and perfectly leading what can’t be the easiest of roles.
The remaining cast members play a variety of roles throughout both in the real world and in Dissocia. Highlights include Tomi Ogbaro who gives a hilarious turn as one of the Insecurity Guards, Phoebe Naughton who gives a standout performance involving some hot dogs (not as dodgy as that sounds, I promise) and Dominique Hamilton who gets to play a character in Dissocia full of depth and complication, having to navigate perhaps the toughest part of the story.
Anthony Neilson’s writing is a thing of beauty. The world of Dissocia is wickedly funny, though the humour may be dark in times, the delivery of the lines made for some raucous laugh out loud moments, with set ups and punchlines leading to highly amusing moments. The writing is deceptive in that it is masking the serious issues, and while it encourages you to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, it is always done sensitively with the feeling you are never belittling something as serious as mental health. The writing also becomes increasingly thought provoking with a sudden lighthearted moment midway through the first act taking a sudden and dark turn that stops you in your tracks and suddenly makes the whole thing seem less funny.
Featuring a smattering of songs composed by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Dissocia is neither a straight play nor a musical but more an amalgamation of both. The musical numbers are immediately familiar and always a highlight of the show, performed by a truly remarkable cast. Fantastic direction from Emma Baggott, an incredible use of movement from Angela Gasparetto and lighting by Lucía Sánchez Roldán creates a well rounded production which is always a joy to experience.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia has an interesting narrative structure which may prove divisive and jarring to some. An overlong first act predominantly set in the world of Dissocia followed by a short and snappy second act set in the gritty reality of a hospital where Lisa is now a patient, suddenly making the outlandish events of the first act make sense. While I appreciated the artistic choice of doing something so contrasting and different, I found myself missing the colourful world we had fallen in love with in the act one… but maybe that was the whole point? I couldn’t help but feel like this was a show that would have worked better if it didn’t use a linear narrative. Either having act 2 before the events of act 1 or even flitting back and forth between the timelines could have created even more poignance and a more satisfying payoff. Ultimately, it felt like the show ended rather suddenly and not quite concluding the story properly, but in that sense it’s rather a fitting reflection of life.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia did exactly what it set out to – created a wonderful world for the audience to immerse themselves into. With magnificent writing full of humour and heart coupled with gorgeous staging and throwing a phenomenal cast in to the mix, you feel like you are witnessing true theatre magic played out on the stage. Lisa may have lost an hour but mark my words, seeing this wonderful piece of theatre will not make you feel like you’ve lost any time at all. This is a show that will stay with you long after you've left the theatre and will doubtlessly make you want to return to this world.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia plays at Stratford East until October 15th. Tickets from www.stratfordeast.com
Content Advisory: The show features scenes some may find upsetting relating to sexual violence and mental health.
Photos by Marc Brenner