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19 June 2011
Lullaby: the show that will put you to sleep and then serve you breakfast

Tom Lamont: The Observer
The Lullaby cast, from left to right: sisters H and Harriet Plewis, Matthew Robins and Tim Spooner. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Sending your theatre audience to sleep can't often be the artistic ideal, but there can be benefits. Taken to Carousel as a kid I remember being so bored by all the early courting between Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan that I dozed through Act II, missing a crucial death scene. I woke up delighted to find that far from being a play about love this was really one about superpowers, as Billy seemed to have discovered the ghostly ability to appear and disappear at will ... I had a great time.

Company members at Duckie, a theatre collective based in south London, admit to having slept through plays in the past. "All the time!" says performer H Plewis. "Everyone has," says director Mark Whitelaw, "haven't they?" It prompted a thought. The group – renowned for raucous, boozy cabaret nights at its residency space at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Vauxhall – had never really had audiences of their own nodding off. What if they tried to encourage it?

The result is Lullaby, a show that runs at the Barbican from next week and then through July. The audience, on arrival, will be put in comfortable single-, double- and triple-beds tiered around the theatre's Pit space. They'll be given pillows and blankets and then the performers will do everything they can to send the 50-odd assembled off for the night. A ticket costs £42, and includes breakfast in the morning.

Producer Simon Casson explains the logistics: "The show starts at 11pm. There's half an hour of fun, all dancing and tits and teeth. Then there'll be an interval – hot chocolate, bickies – before the real show begins. That goes on for about two hours..."

"Around 2am," says Whitelaw, "the material tails off and evaporates. Hopefully everyone will have drifted off. There should come a point when the audience instinctively know…"

Casson interrupts: "That it's time to pile up some zeds. Mark's got a really difficult job. How does he make you fall asleep, even though your instinct will be against it? It's an experiment. We hope it'll work."

The "real show", the two or so hours around midnight when the audience will hopefully be succumbing like eight-year-old boys at a production of Carousel, has been devised by the cast, H Plewis, her sister Harriet Plewis, Matthew Robins, and Tim Spooner. They'll dress up in dreamy costumes – waving mice, walking houses, synchro-swimming octopuses – with images and characters recurring in distorted ways throughout the evening. "Dream food," as Whitelaw puts it.

"We've let ourselves fall asleep in rehearsals," he says, "and we've found there are really satisfying moments when you don't know how long you've been away for, and we've tried to build that into the structure of the piece. The material comes around on itself, in slightly altered form." The idea is to keep it interesting for the insomniacs, too, as well as for people who are dropping in and out of sleep. At one point, says Whitelaw, the action will shift to the ceiling via projected images, encouraging any hardy stayer-uppers to at least lie on their backs.

What about the performers? Will they join the sleepover? Whitelaw hopes they'll be "like mum and dad, gently backing out of the room when they think the kids have nodded off". H Plewis reckons her own night's sleep will depend on how the show pans out. "If we've put people to sleep, and we've done our jobs, and it's worked, then I think we will. But if it's just people having midnight feasts and parties then I think there'll be a few sleepless nights. If it's just people having sex…"

Yes: there is that possibility to consider. Duckie, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last year, is not famed for shyness. The company way has always been "fun, larging it," says Casson. Shows over the years (to take a random sample) have included a hijab-wearing magician, a contortionist serving tortilla dip out of her upended crotch, a performer swinging around a set suspended only by the hair…

"And this is the first time we've done a show that has no sex in it," says Casson. "No nudity. It's our first sober show! There's no booze, unless you count the option of a little brandy in the hot chocolate."

He says there will be other house rules, especially as regards the behaviour in the double and triple beds. "Cuddling is permitted. Spooning is permitted. Bumming is not." There will also be a night nurse-like figure, "an audience host", on hand, says Casson, to help people with extra blankets. Whitelaw stresses it will all be very innocent. "We did a trial sleepover in the Pit, all the cast. Gathered together in a strange space in your PJs there's a temptation to be quite... giddy about it. And maybe the audience will be giddy at first – but its our job to meet them there, and bring them down until they're ready to sleep. We don't pull any tricks. We'll be kind."

When I visited rehearsals – on a hectic, hot Monday afternoon – I was given a little preview of the show in a rehearsal room at the Barbican, and didn't fancy myself particularly susceptible to sleep at the time. But just 20 minutes of the performers dancing dreamily, circular animal parades and lulling musical scales, however, and I began to think it might be nice to rest my eyes.

"Duckie's got a history of parties, almost of making mini-riots," says Whitelaw, "but this is us trying to work out what happens after the party's over. Can we get a good night's sleep?" Casson called it an experiment, and my hunch is that the experiment will work – good night's sleeps all round. Contingency plans, just in case, are in place for the insomniacs. There'll be a separate room with a telly, and everyone will get boiled egg and soldiers in the morning.

Not, sadly, served in bed. "Think of the mess!" says Whitelaw. "The duvets…"

Lullaby: 24 June-23 July, Tuesdays to Fridays, from 10.30pm at the Pit, the Barbican, London, EC2. Tickets £42 for a single bed.

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