A man and a woman. A husband and a wife. A double bed. An audience.
John and Yoko’s agenda for 1969’s Bed-In for Peace may differ wildly from Tom and Lilian’s in Elephant and Castle, but as a married couple, then on honeymoon, they perhaps asked similar questions of themselves when planning the work.
Because this is a properly personal and revealing show about the shared space of the marital bed and how the night there is spent. It’s vulnerable territory for the performers. How much are you willing to share and how will it affect your relationship? The line between your real and your performing self is inevitably going to blur. Factor in what you want the audience to experience and to take from it, and you’ve made yourself a bit of a hard bed to lie on.
Fortunately for theatre, if not for the couple, is the fact that Tom’s slow-wave sleep parasomnias interrupt their repose with great comic effect. His somnambulant grunts, shouts, words and actions often terrify and sometimes amuse Lily and disrupt her own sleep. Why does this happen and how will they cope?
The story is told through delicate songs and economical text that interweaves his story with hers and includes a bit of science and somnambulist history.
A bed centre-stage is the set and occasional backdrop. Lily is on piano and Tom on guitar. Recordings of Tom’s sleep-talking feed through as starting point or illustration. The songs are spare and often haunting, especially those delivered in Lily’s crystal clear voice with its huge range and clipped vocal precision, familiar to many from her work with 1927. She describes Tom as a golem in one song; a nice touch for those in the know. Tom quips and smiles, all the while alert to the potential harm or irritation he causes his wife and others with his unusual and uncontrollable behaviour. It must be so strange to hear your recorded voice spouting about potatoes from your subconscious and to know that you’ve been walking around naked barking like a dog. As someone who once woke a friend by shaking her and shouting ‘Give me back my camera!’ I can sympathise with them both.
The songs feed the narrative, without ever dipping into musical theatre territory. They swerve sentimentality too, something that Cora Bissett’s Midsummer, another song-based lovers duet performed on a bed, positively mined, to lesser effect in my view.
We hear from Dr Ian Smith, the Papworth Hospital sleep expert, and Tom’s brother Mark pops up in sleep talk. Tom’s condition is hereditary and is affected by stress and various stimuli that they will have to navigate through in their lives together.
If the songs are rather too similar tonally and the pace a little, well, sleepy, this is nonetheless a joyful hour. A film of Tom sleepwalking projected onto a wrinkled sheet doesn’t work, but first night’s allow for such things. You want to be a bit closer to them too: the big proscenium arch stage frames them nicely but isn’t exactly intimate.
Playful yet deeply and sincerely felt, you can’t help but love them both. The closing duet, Another World, where their voices have hints of Mary Margaret O’Hara and Mark Lanegan, has a refrain ‘please don’t shake me’. It’s a thing of beauty and leaves you feeling if not shaken, certainly stirred.