The Wonderful World of Dissocia – a review even though we said we wouldn’t

Wednesday 11 April 2007

The standard pattern of a visit to the Royal Court for the Whingers goes like this: we sit through the first act and then retire to a faraway bar and pity/laugh at the misfortune of those who were foolish enough to return after the interval.

How cunning of writer and director Anthony Neilson to try and trip the Whingers up with The Wonderful World of Dissocia. Had we left in the interval, we would still be in full whinge. As it was, some strange sixth sense – so powerful that it even broke the pull of the Pinotage – drew us back into the auditorium…

Now, regular readers will know that the Whingers lost patience with the Royal Court after witnessing a string of turkeys followed by an admission by the theatre that its new artistic director was a bit hazy on the basics. So why did we go? Well, because our public demanded it, that’s why. Fellow blogger Natasha of Interval Drinks practically begged us to go.

So, the play. In the first act the central character Lisa (Christine Entwhisle) is transported to the imaginary land of Dissocia to recover an hour that she lost on a flight from New York to London. It’s a metaphor for her mental illness.

According to the Metro (!) review proudly quoted by the Royal Court, Dissocia is like “an X-rated Alice in Wonderland: a world full of colour, sensation and weird and wonderful characters.”

Well sort of. Its characters include insecurity guards, a horned and horny scape-goat (geddit?), a woman from the council whose job it is to take the place of violent crime victims in order to massage the figures, a “lost lost property office” and a singing polar bear.

Actually, the polar bear was brilliant, but Lewis Carroll would hardly be losing any sleep over the competition. It simply underlined the truism that in the wrong hands a little surrealism goes a very long way indeed. Each gag or notion is stretched way beyond its breaking point and by the end of the first act each Whinger was beginning to resent his own lost hour.

But as Lisa was transported to Dissocia Phil was transported back to to his post-war (which one? Andrew) junior school days, where he sat cross-legged in the school gymnasium watching a group of strolling players squeezed into multi-coloured tights pulling props from a large wicker basket and mugging Legz Akimbo style in a vain attempt to enthrall their young audience. Perhaps it was here that Phil’s nascent whinging first emerged. Even at the age of 7 he felt embarrassed for them.

Things were looking wonderfully promising by the interval. Even the presence of on-stage food consumption yet again couldn’t compensate Phil for the over-stretched material of the over-long act which led Phil to comment that it was a triumph on Neilsen’s part to both underwrite and overwrite simultaneously.

The Whingers hadn’t witnessed a stinker like this in a long time and as they gleefully sharped their yellowing fangs the vitriol was flowing like their after-show beverages. How could they not go back for more?

Phil had been gratified to hear the clanking of seats going up and the banging of doors as some patrons gave up on it way before the interval. After the interval there were even more vacated seats including those next to Andrew (although Phil believes this may have been related to some kind of personal hygiene issue).

But as football commentators are prone to say, “it’s a game of two halves” and something remarkable happened…

The second act is completely different. It is set in a white hospital room where Lisa is recovering from her breakdown. A clear Perspex curtain separates the action from the audience, muffling the sound in a very effective way, particularly when combined with the very convincing “institutional hum” (take a bow, sound designer Mark Hughes).

The play takes the form of a sequence of highly compelling scenes with very little dialogue in which a series of doctors, nurses and visitors enter the room to assess, medicate or berate Lisa. The actors are, of course, the same ones who played the Dissocia characters in the first act giving it a bit of a Wizard of Oz echo.

Andrew found the many blackouts between the scenes slightly irritating, but Phil saw them as a welcome opportunity to glug from his beaker of wine.

The second act was absolutely stunning and the Whingers retired to a nearby bar in a state of mild excitement. Innocent bystanders in the bar would never have believed that they were in the presence of the Whingers who have never before uttered and scribbled words such as these into their pads:

Alienating… Brechtian… a new theatrical conceit… brave but flawed… dichotomy… Blu-Tack.

Actually, that last one was a reminder to buy some for the forthcoming party, but you get the idea.

It was an unexpectedly thought-provoking evening exploring some interesting perspectives on mental illness. The Whingers boarded the tube at Sloane Square. Jumping onto their District Line train, they couldn’t help but notice that its final destination was Barking. As sharp as they like to think they are, even they couldn’t have made up that particular coda to the evening.

Trivial footnote:

  • Lisa reveals her birthday as June 19th – the day before Phil’s (flowers, champagne and your credit card numbers please) of course Gemini, the sign of the twins and a split personality. How like Phil, and how unlike Andrew who would be happy to have even one.

6 Responses to “The Wonderful World of Dissocia – a review even though we said we wouldn’t”


  1. Heh, have to agree with most of the above. The first half irritated considerably, though it contained a handful of very nice touches; but it was the second half that made it (nearly) all worthwhile. The slightly muffling of the sound was a masterstroke, a tiny detail that made a world of difference.


  2. Thanks for breaking your self imposed Royal Court exile. I’d given “Dissocia” a miss when it was in Glasgow and then been surprised by the reaction to it “down south” and regretted not seeing it. After reading this I’ve decided to make the effort to catch it in June when it reaches Edinburgh.

    Another plus is that reading this makes me feel slightly less uncomfortable about my own recent decision to depart from my two-year-old policy of ignoring productions at the Kings/Theatre Royal in Glasgow in order to see Alan Cumming in “The Bacchae” in August. Hopefully that will be as worthwhile as “Dissocia” was for you.

  3. Cornish Drama Says:

    Yep, captivating and if you take a party of 16-18 pupils (40 of them I confess) you would not expect them to recover from the blatant crudeness af act one. This company captivated the young people, only one mobile drubbing it’s vibrating text incoming. “Dissocia” served as a great service against the remote control flickers of the 21st century, introducing self control and thought when I had thought all hope was lost. Actually the adults were chatting more than the teenagers. This is a must see whereever it appears in the country.

  4. Jo Says:

    I saw this last night at the Wharf theatre. I was not irritated by Act 1 in fact I enjoyed the script and the scene flow. I also found it very funny as well as thought provoking that some dissociative behaviour necessary and enjoyable. I did find Act 2 a bit slow but very true to reality. My only gripe was that we arrived just as they shut the doors werent allowed in until 10mins into play.

  5. Mike Says:

    Interesting. Geez you’re still going back to the Royal Court… 15 years was enough for me (‘very naughty boys’ for revealing too much of the plot though).

    We loved the Sydney Theatre Co production of this (http://www.drivelry.com/review-of-the-wonderful-world-of-dissocia-the-play-by-anthony-neilson/190/) but it wouldn’t have been the same without Justine Clarke as Lisa who presents ‘Playschool’ here.

  6. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.


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