On Saturday night, I was delighted to watch ‘A Sleepless Night’ by Bristol Dramsoc as part of a continuing student theatre tour between Exeter and Bristol’s drama societies. A Sleepless Night, directed by Phoebe Simmonds and Dan Durkin, is a piece of children’s theatre which will tour around primary schools in the upcoming weeks. I asked Thomy Lawson, who plays an excellent exasperated 8 year-old, how long they had been planning and rehearsing the performance. I was astonished by her casual response – that this was all done in only a week and a half. It’s amazing that they had made this possible with no source text to work from; it is unique for a performance to be fully devised. Yet perhaps this is what created the unwavering energy and apparent spontaneity which made the performance so fantastic.
The play centred around 8-year old Thomy (the actor kept her own name) who is trying to get a good night’s sleep before her first big day of school. She is helped eventually, but for the majority of the play she is hindered by five minion-like beings, played by Layla Madanat, Lily Carr, Joss Gillespie, Jessica Garlick, and Elliot Brett, who just won’t let her drop off. These minions individually became lucid narrators who tell the stories of Red Riding Hood, Matilda, Ariel, Robin Hood, and Goldilocks – reworked to address the anxieties of going to school. The role of the five minions was fairly homogenous, but as the performance progressed the audience was able to recognise their individual quirks.
The quintet effortlessly metamorphosed into countless shapes of people, objects, and animals to create an intensely visual performance. They were creative with the few props they had: books became birds, a blanket became a river, a letter, and also a window with the help of an arm. Furthermore, the clear chemistry between them and their strong facial expressions gave verisimilitude to their swift changes of personification. Thomy was also very convincing; I felt exhausted and frustrated for her. I was continually carried away by their performance, with the small exception of the moments when all five minions were stomping and shouting simultaneously – it was slightly overwhelming. However, I could see this was to create the tumult of Thomy’s mind, and overall I found it impressive that they could transport back to the anxieties of a child when I can scarcely remember how well children can speak at certain ages.
Lines were delivered well and had good timing. I also enjoyed their puns – in Ariel’s story we had a shooting star fish, the possibility of her ‘seaweeding’ herself, and in Goldilock’s dilemma we instead had the ‘too hot’ and ‘too cool’ school kids rather than bowls of porridge. The traditional fairy tales also had insertions of the 21st century. Pinky promises, the bullies who do not have a vocabulary that extends beyond ‘mate’, and a monumental group dab to move across stage. The sound effects produced by the minions delivered a lot of the humour; sounds ranged from a ‘coo’ of a bird, the sound of water passing through each individual pipe and stopping where it should (just like in our thinly walled student houses) and, even, the sound of clammy hands. This seems unbelievable, but somehow they verbalised these sounds and made it work. It was hilarious.
The play was around 40 minutes, and I would have liked it to have been longer. Thomy Lawson didn’t expect students to enjoy the children’s play as much as we did, and was pleased to hear our laughter while performing. It was refreshing to watch a play that had a simple and genial message: don’t worry. I found the 8 year-old’s sleepless predicament highly reminiscent of being at at university; unable to sleep, checking my phone and calculating the hours of sleep I may get in before my alarm, with a crowd of anxieties in my head preventing me from doing so. If you suffer from something similar, Thomy recommends brushing your teeth again to make your body feel as if you’re going to sleep.
A very successful collab between both universities. Thank you Bristol Dramsoc for coming to Exeter and sharing your talent – please come again, particularly for the queer Romeo & Juliet that I was told you’re planning…