I Can't Wake Up, Lyric Studio, London

Louder than witless words
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The Independent Culture

The set for I Can't Wake Up is a huge canvas sail, hanging behind the actors and spreading under their feet. A long, narrow table tilts at a seasick-making angle. A woman in a bonnet and a long dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves enters.

But Told By an Idiot's play is not set (at least, not really) on a ship in the age of sail. It takes place mainly in the mind of Captain William Mallin (Paul Hunter), who has lost, in an accident, one leg and his reason. Catherine Marmier doubles as one of his sailors and his Swiss wife, Emily, and Richard Clews plays another seaman and a doctor.

So far, so straightforward. But the straightforward has never been this company's line, and the table is not the only thing here that's skew-whiff. Apart from a few scenes in which Mrs Mallin talks to her husband, the play – written by the actors and director John Wright – shows us the captain's fears, dreams, and memories, all distorted by his illness. On a visit to the doctor, the captain's wife opens her mouth wide in silent anger, and a vicious gale knocks him backwards. The captain sits staring at a television which later becomes a microwave oven; he flogs his misbehaving sailors and then thrusts out his backside and begs them to reciprocate; he makes animal noises, pulls at his wife's clothes, and lies atop her, whereupon the doctor enters and talks to the wife as if she is giving birth. Emily, overjoyed at the captain's apparent return to sanity, cries, "Oh, William, you are playing with a full deck!"

As the man said (John Dennis, he was called), anyone who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket. He might have added that anyone who assumes that anachronism is funny would not refrain from making the job easier by clubbing the victim insensible. Those who share this company's philosophy will appreciate more than I the captain's writing a letter to his wife that turns into the lyrics of "You've Got a Friend" (complete with an earnest "yeah"), or his performing, with the others, a pantomime to Glenn Miller's "Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree".

What, however, is this performance meant to tell us? That the afflicted shift moods quickly, and make bizarre associations? That there is unintended humour in their ravings? Not news, this, and not portrayed here in an engaging or sympathetic way. The witlessness of this company, which emphasises physical comedy, only shows theatre-goers who wish mimes would say something once in a while to realise when they're well off.

To 9 Feb (020-8741 2311)

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