Review: Hysteria by Terry Johnson, London Classic Theatre, Bury Theatre Royal, until February 25

John Dorney as Salvador Dalí; Ged McKenna as Sigmund Freud and Summer Strallen as Jessica in Terry J

John Dorney as Salvador Dalí; Ged McKenna as Sigmund Freud and Summer Strallen as Jessica in Terry Johnson's classic farce Hysteria which is playing at Bury Theatre Royal and the Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

Hysteria comes with quite a reputation. Penned by an acclaimed comic wordsmith, showered with praise by ecstatic critics on its original production and the recipient of an Olivier for Best New Comedy in 1994, any new staging has a lot to live up to.

It’s billing as a farce is a little disingenuous. It’s far more than that. It’s an examination, painful at times, of the effects of human relationships and our responsibilities to one another. Terry Johnson is attempting that most difficult of theatrical endeavours replicating real life – balancing the comic and the farcical with the dramatic and the tragic. And if that wasn’t hard enough he decides to throw in a splash of surrealism to really test both his actors and the audience.

Set in Hampstead in 1938 it chronicles a meeting between Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and the surreal artist Salvador Dali. The day of Dali’s visit is also the time when Freud’s past catches up with him – or does it?

It’s a hugely entertaining play with a satisfying balance of laughs and emotionally engaging drama but for a company that breathed new life into Beckett’s Waiting for Godot last year this production was strangely pedestrian.

It felt as if director Michael Cabot was well aware that the play had something dramatic to say and was determined to give each scene gravity; when what the play needed was some zip and some light and shade. The whole thing was frustratingly one note.

The secret to Hysteria is that it needs to be able to change gear without warning. The audience, if they are with you, are able to ride this rollercoaster with the actors. They are living the moment. This production rarely made it out of second gear – which is a shame because there were some lovely performances particularly John Dorney as the self-assured Dali and Moray Treadwell as the increasingly exasperated Dr Abraham Yahuda.

West End star Summer Strallen had the hardest role as Jessica, the mysterious stranger, and because she provided much of the drama was trapped by the plodding pace while Ged McKenna’s Freud needed to find a way to indicate his character’s frailty without slowing down the pace of the action.

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Engaging and thoughtful. There were laughs but there should have been more.

Andrew Clarke

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