Hysteria

Terry Johnson
Birmingham Rep
(2007)

Publicity image

When a director describes a work as "one of the funniest plays written in the last twenty years or so", it's putting a tremendous amount of pressure on himself to deliver.

It's even more difficult when you're presenting a production such as Hysteria which is a deeply moving tale as well as containing scenes which wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Rix farce.

To make the kind of statement that Paul Raffield did, you need a superb cast with plenty of experience to help you achieve your goal.

For this production at Birmingham Rep, Raffield has two actors with pedigree, one with a reasonable number of credits and one just starting out on his professional career.

The result is an impressive offering which shows us the pathos of Terry Johnson's work but doesn't quite succeed in bringing out all the comic elements.

Hysteria is the tale of how 82-year-old Sigmund Freud, who's fled from Nazi-occupied Austria, settles down in Hampstead where he aims to spend his dying days in peace. Obviously that won't happen.

Into his life comes Jessica, an emotionally fragile student who's the daughter of one of Freud's earlier case studies. She desperately seeks attention and eventually causes Freud to examine some of his deepest-held theories.

The arrival of his old friend Abraham Yahuda, a doctor who wants to burn Freud's latest thesis because he thinks it's rubbish, gives Freud even more to think about.

And when Salvador Dali, who has a surrealistic obsession with armpits, turns up, the evening descends into chaos.

The part of Freud is taken by Sean Foley, a comedy veteran who's also a writer and was one of those who penned The Play What I Wrote. His is a magnificent portrayal of the father of psychoanalysis. He captures the mannerisms of an old man perfectly, is determinedly defensive about his work early on and becomes extremely troubled when he's forced into self-analysis.

John Burgess is solidly impressive as Yahuda who remains calm while all around him are losing their composure - and some their clothes. You're in total agreement with him during a madcap session in which he proclaims, "This is a complete farce. If I saw it in a theatre, I wouldn't believe it."

Ruth Millar provides the glamour as Jessica, throwing off most of her clothes in the first act including her (Freudian?) slip. She cleverly forces Freud to re-examine some of his theories including those on the repression of sexual desire. Unfortunately she's less convincing physically when she recalls childhood sickness and her timing is slightly out when delivering a couple of her comic lines.

Sam Swainsbury, a relative newcomer, paints a reasonable picture of Dali, although the writer doesn't appear to have developed this character as much as those around him.

Libby Watson deserves praise for her design, with Freud's sumptuous study taking on Dali-esque proportions when he confronts his past amid contorting doors and clocks. There are also some harrowing images as Freud reassesses his outlook on life.

On the whole this is a thought-provoking play that will have you discussing some of the scenes well after you've left the theatre. All the poignancy of Johnson's writing is cleverly portrayed. It's a shame that the farcical elements weren't quite as successful.

"Hysteria" runs until May 12th

Reviewer: Steve Orme