Browse reviews

Brighton Fringe 2019


New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Dark Comedy, Farce, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre Upstairs (Main)

Festival: ,

Low Down

Director and sound designer Bob Ryder employs the solidity of the NVT Upstairs. It features a single set, designed by Adam Kincaid, built by Simon Glazier and George Walter. Keith Dawson’s lighting might look innocent but has cunning in store. Period costumes by Ellie Roser via Gladrags amplify the mad precision.



‘If you’re waiting for me to break the silence, you’ll be disappointed!’ Terry Johnson’s a mercurial figure in theatre, his activity also punctuated by long silences whilst he directs, and surfacing with a masterpiece, usually several at once. In 2017 two plays including his homage to magical iconoclast Ken Campbell, Ken confirmed his capacity for renewal, and a return to the stage after many years, playing his younger self.


Olivier Award-winning Hysteria from 1993 is a modern classic. It echoes Johnson’s early (1982) masterpiece Insignificance, which features an unnamed Einstein, Miller, Monroe, and Roy Cohn (who also appears unambiguously in Angels in America). This time though three of the four are real, and the last, well, that’s interesting.


Director and sound designer Bob Ryder employs the solidity of the NVT Upstairs. It features a single set, designed by Adam Kincaid. Freud’s Hampstead study, French windows backstage centre, desk stage right, two rugs (one terribly valuable), and stage left the famous couch and a comfy armchair where when we open Freud dozes in. It’s a rough semi-circle in red paintwork, with a door downstage left (opening onto a pale green landing), and upstage right a closet, where people cluster invisibly naked or with their trousers off. Books line the back walls either side of the French window. Keith Dawson’s lighting might look innocent but has cunning in store: more than diurnal effects on those French windows. Period costumes by Ellie Roser via Gladrags amplify the mad precision.


There’s a little oil fire downstage right. And the lobster Freud picks up as a phone. And the 4,000 year-old phalluses wielded like Jedi-fighting. They’re really impressive, nods a visiting surrealist. Antiques envy.


Summer 1938, Freud’s escaped from Vienna but has cancer of the jaw, a chunk of the cancer left like the Nazis in Vienna, though unlike them (sadly) in formaldehyde. He’s left elderly sisters too and blames himself for not leaving earlier.


Dan Dryer’s Freud opens with those lines: ‘If you’re waiting for me to break the silence, you’ll be disappointed!’ which raises a laugh but of course is his analyst’s opening gambit. He looks round. No-one’s there. Freud then asks his daughter Anna (voice of Terri Challis) via speaker-tube about a young woman patient who’s vanished. It’s five am she reminds him.


At eighty-two, Freud aims to spend his final days in peace. He’s just back from a very unexpected romp: Ben Travers’ Rookery Nook. Except in the structure of the next two hours it never leaves him. His patients are thinning out; he’s anxious to conclude all cases before he dies, so he’s closed for new ones. But there’s a waiting list he’s not prepared for: first, a young woman hammering at the window – Lucy Mae Knight – whom he ignores. Till he can’t.

Hysteria is a little world made cunningly – touching on Nazi Germany, the Surrealists, Judaism, Freud’s theories of the unconscious, family relationships, life, death, love and loss. Made cunningly into a farce. Its genius is shoehorning themes to an alien form and finding the perfect fit.


So when Stuart Curlett’s Salvador Dali turns up to discover a less-than-fully dressed woman in the closet, peace becomes elusive. Oh, we’re ahead of ourselves. Like Rookery Nook though, Dali really did turn up in Freud’s Hampstead life.


And that girl at the window now, soaking, begging to be let in. She’s his Anima she tells Freud. Later on she’s Jessica. Freud calls her many other things before he can call her that. Well she must be that young woman.


Arguing herself into a pre-session before referral, Anima replicates one of his case-notes. Freud’s furious. Is she a student? Not quite. But she’s attached to this case. So much so she blackmails Freud by stripping off and running into the garden naked, Freud pursuing her with her wet raincoat. She fakes an exit and raids a pink file.


So Freud’s old friend Dr Abraham Yehuda (David Peaty) turns up: Anima’s bundled into Freud’s closet. Yehuda speculates those under-garments in the garden couldn’t possibly fit Freud’s daughter. And Freud’s tract on Moses being Egyptian? Yehuda will burn this little blue file. That’s the plan. There’s a plot there, and someone swaps the contents.


Peaty exudes Yehuda’s upright Jewish paternalism, which extends to Freud himself. Though shot through with compassion for Freud, there’s fury at Freud’s undermining Jewish identity with his Moses theory; and under-garments in Freud’s garden. Well?


Naturally Dali arrives just as Freud’s got rid of Yehuda. And we’re back to two people in the closet as Yehuda returns with a disabled bicycle. Not long after Freud’s got a Wellington boot on his hand, underwear in the other, and a bandage round his head to stop pain his jaw. Surrealism incarnate and Dali brings a gift, that painting of Narcissus with the egg-cracked head which he invites Freud to analyse – replacing Freud’s Picasso with it above the desk.


This madcap Dali is the finest performance from Curlett I’ve seen. He transforms Dali’s peacock narcissism through Johnson’s exposing an egg-fragile ego under the farcical preening. Curlett’s Faydeau-like timing, as he gets knocked out, kneed, assumes interesting poses and narrates how he – well, again he must be seen. Height and the kind of timing given to a hapless waiter crossed with a huge ego might scratch his immaculate surface.


It gets madder so makes far more sense.


Hysteria’s nub though is to question Freud’s radical revision of his theories of hysteria. Before 1897 he concluded many women’s psychological blocks were caused by sexual assault when children, including oral rape for instance here. After, he concluded these were fantasies. After all over half of Viennese fathers – including his own – would be guilty. And these are powerful men. Has Freud compromised a key insight out of expediency, or is it because he’d then incriminate his own father?


There’s more cost than even Jessica can guess. ‘That year .. was the year that has been killing me’ Freud concludes. And we conclude… should we break the silence?


Dryer looks more in his nifty fifties but Johnson’s playing with time. Summer 1938 isn’t Kristallnacht’s November 9/10th – Yehuda brings that news. There’s a reason and the team respond to this creatively. For instance Anima/Jessica born in 1898 would be forty, not twenty-nine as she proclaims and Knight seems to be. Dryer combines dignity with fluster, a teetering on the point of extinction flared up into one last madcap assault on the self. It’s his maître d’hôtel role to restore balance, solitude, Thanatos even, crossed with lots of wild animus and anima that fuels classic farce.


Knight balances distress and knowingness, wildness with analytic inquisition. Just occasionally she’s shouty with Dryer’s Freud (when he raises his voice), though her finest suit, when she’s wearing Dali’s in fact, then even more her own again – is the implacable stripping of Freud, her core mission. There, Knight ensures her character’s naked, but Freud’s skin has gone. She’s a superb nemesis.


Farcical and profound, so tragic it’ll leave you weeping with laughter, this is a classic produced in the classic tradition of NVT at its best. In all the flurry of Fringe, don’t miss this gem.