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Brighton Fringe 2016

Low Down

ZLS Theatre gather strength in this cellarage of the imagination, reviving Insomnia from its 2015 run. The Brunswick provides the ultimate black space. Unlike most Fringe plays, this runs two hours with an interval.


ZLS Theatre bring their high-concept avowedly low-tech play Insomnia to The Brunswick’s basement. The results are eventually mesmerising, you leave hallucinated with the same stunned sleep-walking the characters enact.

Insomnia’s capacity to create its intersections of dream and fragmented torsions, demented jingly earworms and cascades of others’ consciousness, replicates in our high-tech experiences on the internet or Facebook and chat-room interfaces.

ZLS immerse you in this atmosphere as soon as you step in introduced by incongruous masked figures who dissolve: we’re left with four characters. Enacting a series of insomniac rituals in turn, their patterns are interrupted as insomnia by a series of video projections. First of disruptive imagery, the cosmos – a frog and dragon; then four narratives feeding the storylines we follow.

These are, as becomes clear, (we’re offered digests of them afterwards) four back-stories written independently. The pith’s all we need which the actors supply: though elements become clearer (an artist in prison with access only to marker pens might been made explicit). In truth the script, largely Rose Clark’s, manages this consummately.

A recorded monologue, Clark again in broad Mancunian enunciates a superbly allusive script of Insomnia’s own way of recruiting legions of the sleepless. It’s the linguistic highpoint of the show, almost a stand-alone spookily integrated later.

Back-stories are tautly enacted by Flashback cast: some like Guy Wah feature here too. One (that’s her name), a hyper-imaginative child about to lose her mother to cancer; a psychopath inviting Jane to look at Mars getting more than he bargained for; Guy Wah’s Robert the Asperger-ish geek patronised at work, building a replicant girlfriend; Macmillan who loses his one brilliant schoolfriend to recruiters who wish him to design after-school after-worlds post-apocalypse, whilst Macmillan’s left as merely artistic.

The sudden eruption from sleep patterns and hallucinated ritual explodes in the second act where the actors step forward from their narratives. So does Insomnia, virtually, a siren character in herself.

One is some post-apocalyptic mediator of tigers and humans, pleading with tigers only to pick off humans on the periphery, so they won’t notice, urging vegetarianism on fellow-humans, gradually crumbling under lack of sleep. Clark has the rare vocal projection and clarity, as well as desperate rationale. Wah’s Robert continues his ideal before the alarm drags him to work, a wreck: a finely-understated portrayal.

Simon Taylor’s Macmillan trapped underground is denied access to the planet’s surface by a computer; his straitened role leaves him to a different register. Sectioned Jane’s to be released (she dreams) in some dystopic system disgorging a multi-murderer or marker-pen addict. Her explicit narrative’s less clear; a little more script would be welcome. Rachel Sparkes summons up the requisite wall-banging here. The resolution’s haunting, interestingly directed.

This piece asks questions about what we do with our missing third when it misfires, sleep turning sleeplessness, ‘stealing our future’ as insomnia leaks into half-wakefulness. This rich seam of meta-language and hyper-atrophied consciousness fractures into narratives we see of one another in Facebook, but here they bleed into our identity, shivering it to other worlds.

There are certain restrictions the cast work under that make their achievement the more remarkable. If Insomnia’s to be compared with anything remotely mainstream, then Alistair Macdowall’s sci-fantasies or even Nick Payne’s way with science might provide faint analogues. This piece already has homeopathic strains of greatness in it. Andromeda-faint spirals like the monologue though haunt past sleeping. Strongly recommended.