Next to the Birmingham REP Theatre is a food joint called Mission Burrito. They pack your burrito full of the best stuff with the best guacamole for a reasonable price. They also serve huge frozen Margaritas. My friends and I go every time we take a trip to see a show in Birmingham. After Leo Butler’s All We Need is LSD, we make a beeline for our burritos. But alas, we discover to our dismay that it has been replaced by a flashy bar, with no-one in it. Our hearts sink hard and fast. It’s hard to stress enough what a huge loss this is our theatre-going contingent. We are now faced with Wagamama, Carluccio’s, or Pizza Express – a measly selection in comparison to our treasured Mission Burrito.
I’m not saying that watching Butler’s play feels like your favourite burrito place has been replaced by a shit bar…but I’m also not saying it doesn’t feel like that.
Told By an Idiot have not undertaken a small task staging Leo Butler’s trip/play/performance/sketch All You Need is LSD. Sophie Clist’s stage is like Alice in Wonderland has been pushed out the other side of a wormhole. The distortion begins in the fabric of the set, in the mismatched furniture. We are introduced to the play and told certain things about this play are true (until they’re not), and some names are kept confidential (until they’re not), that this isn’t a history of LSD (until it is). Various characters travel through time and space in directors Paul Hunter and Stephen Harper’s production, but the audience is thrown around so willfully it’s hard to feel pinned down to anything at all.
Watching these four actors wheel and fly across the stage in increasingly ridiculous outfits and accents, I kept thinking that if an “emerging” writer had put this to a theatre, there’s no way it would be programmed. The jokes that run on too long and surreal scenes that aren’t sure why they’re there don’t make for a radical reordering of the dramatic form, but instead read like a sketch show. The company of actors, particularly Annie Fitzmaurice and Sophie Mercell, work tirelessly to make this show feel alive and there were some tender moments that felt like they nearly got to the core of what was going on. Nearly. Drugs and the creation of drugs are actually fairly political issues. They’re issues which go to the neglectful core of our governments and unearth a lot of the social discordance that lies beneath our liberal sensibilities. I don’t see any of that in Butler’s play. Perhaps there is a layer I am missing, but the jumbled messiness took over in this production. The haphazardness had to be grounded in something for it to work, and there was nothing to hold onto at the heart of the show.
Butler and the directors’ aim feels genuine, and I can see the truth and joy behind the piece – a notion of freedom and acceptance maybe. But this has come at a time when I feel despondent and worried about our theatrical culture and my place in it. Despondent that (as Lyn Gardner’s recent opinion piece “Who gets to fail?” argued) white male playwrights can make mistakes over and over again on huge stages and keep getting programmed. I’m not saying this shouldn’t happen – god knows what theatre would be without failure, but I think I’m saying be fair. Let everyone fail because it’s really the only way we will get better.
All You Need is LSD was on at Birmingham REP from 4-13 October, and is touring through October and November. More information here.