This is a lovely, tender play which will stay with me for a long time. It shows us a few years in the lives of a young couple – played by Niamh Watson and Hannah Lawrence (their characters are not named in the play) – from one of their earliest dates through to living together and dealing with the implications of the revelation that Hannah’s character is suffering from the incurable genetic condition Huntington’s Disease (and the ensuing health problems and necessary changes in lifestyle which affect the couple). We also see all the jealousies, frustrations, quirks, anxieties, infatuation and intensities which come into play when two people come together, and this is heightened by the tiny stage space, with only two square wooden stools as props, and the fact that Niamh and Hannah are the only two actors we see in the play.
In addition it’s a sweltering night in London when I watch the play, with the audience feeling the heat, and this adds to the at times claustrophobic, hothouse atmosphere of the dialogue, and highlights the enclosed, intimate, private space side of the relationship which we are given a window into (this is also emphasized by both actors not having a costume change, and remaining barefoot, for the duration of the play).
We hear of other people in their lives – work colleagues, Hannah’s doctor, friends and relatives, background histories – but it is only their one-to-one interactions which we actually really see. They’ve created their own warm, protective, unique life together, but this can also lead to feelings of entrapment. An additional nice touch on the evening I see the play is the presence of a busker coincidentally playing in the street below whose cover versions of songs such as ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ and ‘Imagine’ often provide an evocative counterpoint or compliment to the action on stage and the story unfolding before us, hints of the world outside drifting into the theatre, as well as the universality of some of the sentiments and emotions displayed.
The writing and acting was honest and believable at all times, and often deeply moving and painful, due to the sad circumstances which affect the two women, and their thinking aloud and checking of their responses at all times, questioning themselves and each other as they have no guidance to assist them in this journey together. They frequently hurt each other with their words and behaviour, as they are unsure of the right responses to the situations they find themselves in, and being the only two people in the drama they seem very alone and vulnerable.
But there was also plenty of joy and excitement in their time together, and both Niamh and Hannah displayed a subtlety of gesture and sensitivity in how they interacted and moved together that really rang true. The conjuring up of specific locales and scenarios without any stage settings and the compression of the relationship’s development into such a short space of time – via ‘jump cuts’ and ‘fast forwards’, leaving things unspoken but implied in the audience’s imagination – was also rendered extremely effectively, again a testament to the skills and abilities of all involved in the production.
I was gripped all the way through ‘Dreamless Sleep’, and was desperate to know more about the characters and what would happen to them as the action unfolded (and wanted things to go well for them). The final onset of the physical symptoms of Hannah’s condition, and how both actors responded to them, was devastating, and left a deep impression on those who saw this remarkable play.