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The Nighmare Dreamer, Blue Elephant

Devised Theatre
Directed by John-Michael MacDonald

★★

Pros: Unusual and visually intriguing, with some innovative stylistic direction.

Cons: The improvised nature meant the piece fell flat at times – it might be too weird for some people.

Our verdict: A strange and unnerving production, which seemed to be conflicted between a conventional linear play and a physical interpretative performance.

Every so often, I get night terrors. Once I dreamt I was in a room full of wardrobes, and these

Courtesy of the Blue Elephant

wardrobes kept falling on top of me and I had to keep pushing them away. I eventually woke to find myself holding a pin board that was usually attached to the wall by my bed. I’d been shaking it furiously. I was covered in pins. Luckily, this dream has not affected my day-to-day life: I have no furniture phobia, I’m usually fine with DFS adverts, and the terrifying possibility of wardrobes attacking me while I dress has rarely crossed my mind (although I do prefer the easier method of storing clothes, known as the ‘floordrobe’..). Compared to the characters in The Nightmare Dreamer – Blue Elephant Theatre’s latest production – I’m like a dog on Diazepam.

This devised piece tells the story of city professionals incapacitated by their one unbearable recurring nightmare. Conventional, quick fix treatment has failed them, and so they are left with one last hope: seek the help of a mysterious vagrant figure, who effectively steals their dreams and takes on the burden for himself. The only problem is, they’ve got to share their bed with him.
The contrast is obvious: these are busy people who value both their personal space and their incredibly self-important money-amassing lifestyles. Their one chink of weakness arises at the point in which they are truly alone with themselves. Throw in a dishevelled hobo offering to help them for minimal recompense and you’ve got some twisted nightmarish version of Wife Swap – without the weird pasty homeschooled kids…

It’s a great premise. But for me, the story wasn’t exploited nearly enough. This is perhaps an issue with devised theatre: it’s where a concept is taken on by performers who allow the structure and dialogue to grow from an improvised basis. The thing is, improvisation only really lends itself to snatched conversations – no one really wants to riff a monologue – and so you often miss getting deeper into a character’s psyche. Which, during a play about people’s nightmares, leaves quite a large empty hole.

So for example, fairly early on, one central character emerged: Susan, a fragile and fretting art restorer. She had a tetchy relationship with her trader boyfriend – the type who’d have regularly chugged a few Snakebite and Blacks in his uni days. Safe to say he was a bit of an oaf who clearly wasn’t suited to her artistic sensibilities. But as soon as the intricacies of their characters had been exposed, the pair of them pretty much disappeared from the action. “But what happened with his business trip to Zurich?!” I cried forlornly to myself.

Maybe getting to know the characters wasn’t the real point. There was a lot of emphasis on the nightmares themselves – these indeed were the most engaging parts of the production. A sinister red glow across the stage acted as an unsettling warning signal for their arrival, and when these dream sequences came, the actors performed them with an unnerving physical grace and a suitable accompanying intensity.

The vivid sensory experience of these scenes should not go without mention. A headless baby was impressively given a live voice by one of the actors off stage (she could totally wreak havoc in the Early Learning Centre…) A nice piece of staging involved the same bit of action being recreated simultaneously at both ends of the stage, but from different perspectives. And when one of the characters used the others as a human bridge, I could really see how willing the cast were to push the physical element of the performance to new heights (literally… boom!)

But I felt there wasn’t enough of this magical, physical, abstract side. And so, the production promised much and was fascinating in parts, but sadly seemed to fall between two stools: the story lacked the development needed to turn it into a mentally engaging thriller, while the physical sections were too scarce to give it that contemporary, interpretative feel. As a result, I left the theatre with the feeling I’d just woken up from a fragmented and disjointed dream. Thankfully, minus the wardrobes.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Nightmare Dreamer runs at Blue Elephant Theatre until 29th June 2013
Box Office: 020 7701 0100 or book online at:

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