Insomnia is a strange, strange show – but also rather a wonderful one. Ushered into a faintly malodorous basement, by cartoonishly sleepy figures drawn from some kind of childhood fairytale, we’re introduced to two men and two women who live in radically different places and times. They have just one thing in common: they’re awake while the rest of the world is resting. With an actor performing in each corner and the audience seated in the middle, you’ll soon find yourself swivelling constantly in your chair, as you watch these mysterious characters’ tortured nights unfold.
Featuring live performance, eloquent recorded speech, music, video and stop-motion animation, Insomnia is as much about a mood as it is about a story. The metronomic structure – visiting each of the four characters in strict rotation – demands some patience at first, but it soon develops an ebb and flow which draws you into its slow, embracing rhythm. Near the start, it feels like it’s stuck on repeat, like the repetitive and inescapable thoughts of a sleepless night. But other scenes appear to zip past; and overall, despite its two-hour running time, the piece doesn’t actually seem all that long.
Adding further to the dream-like atmosphere, there are mysterious recurring motifs, and a signature piece of music to accompany each actor’s scenes. Projected onto the wall, well-produced segments of video flesh out the characters’ back-stories. There are also some endearingly old-fashioned stop-motion animations – mainly focussed on the dreaded “ear-worm”, the bringer of tunes you just can’t get out of your head. The production describes itself as lo-fi, but in truth it’s intricate and technically accomplished, seamlessly meshing together a large number of invisible moving parts.
But what of the stories the characters tell? It’s here that things get controversial. While two of the plots are clear by the end, the other two remain intentionally obscure – with their accompanying video back-stories posing far more questions than they provide answers. Artistically, of course, that’s a perfectly valid approach, but if you’re the kind of person who likes everything wrapped up then be warned that you’re likely to feel frustrated.
You can gain further insights from a collection of written short stories, all penned by different authors and presented, beautifully tied in ribbon, at the end. You can select one character’s story to take home; if you want more than one, you can buy the extras at £1 a pop. Cheeky? Maybe. But at £10 for two hours’ complex material, the main show is hardly expensive, and demanding a coin in the hat before you share the ending is the prerogative of storytellers through the ages.
Insomnia is unabashedly experimental – and like all experiments, its results are hard to predict. As it happens, I loved it; you might choose to quit the madness halfway through. But whatever the outcome, I think you’ll admire a well-worked piece, which commits itself to an ambitious concept and has the courage to follow it to its conclusion. And above all, it embodies that strange night-time fever – dream-like yet unsleeping – when the clock turns slowly, and your own churning thoughts drive reason and logic from your mind.