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30 June 2011
Review: Lullaby, Barbican Centre

Matt Trueman: Blog

Lullaby, the latest theatrical inversion from crack cabaret outfit Duckie, sets out to be a snooze-fest. It is a late-night cabaret of dreams to which we come to “take our ease and sleep an act or two”. Theoretically, the more effective the show, the less of it you see.

So, pure theatrical Night Nurse, then? Not exactly.

Though an intensely relaxing experience, Lullaby succumbs to its own paradox. In having to do something to encourage sleep, it gives you a reason to stay awake. Awareness of your own dozy descent causes a little jolt of curiosity and your eyelids heave themselves open. Others, as the gentle purring around me testified, had no such problems, but it took me a further two or three hours to will myself, limb by limb, to sleep.

It is basically a live, adulted-sized hanging mobile – hypnotic, regressive and ungraspable – designed not simply to anaesthetize, but to ease the passage to slumber. A distraction to ward off the bedtime panics that can spring from nowhere. The theatre becomes a sleep factory, soothing and remedial enough to overcome the dystopian connotations of Brave New World or The Matrix.

Once you’ve checked in and changed into pyjamas, you’re tucked into one of twenty-nine single, double or triple beds, arranged around a circular stage. After a forty-minute cabaret of Matthew Robins’ gentle music-box tinklings and a quilted pageant of cutesy creatures, including a chorus of spangled squid, you break for teeth-brushing and final cigarettes.

Back in bed, the second half is a gradual winding down. Through half-closed eyes, you watch the cotton-wool creatures return, strangely distorted. There are soothing lectures on Pythagorean planetary theory, tree roots and the nervous system and twee songs about tigers and moons. Eventually, it gives up on sense, dropping into unconnected, free-associating sentences, on which your ear momentarily snags, but your brain can’t retain. (“It’s ok to like baked beans.”) Slowly, smoothly, the hymning voices grow distant, the music fades and your closed eyelids throb with the pulsating glows of passing plastic clouds.

Here’s the problem, though: either Lullaby works for you or it doesn’t. If it sends you off, you get a pleasant, sensory show and a nice surprise on waking. Everything Duckie do, from reception to revival, seems built with your comfort in mind. It is caring and concerted and generous.

If not, however, Lullaby is merely a pleasant prologue and epilogue to a long and lonely restless night. It’s essentially a torturously over-extended interval. Given all the effort that’s gone in to this reverend care that feels increasingly like a failure on your part and the frustration escalates. The game is simply not worth the candle.

Being fair, though, Duckie can’t be held singularly responsible. Some things just can’t be helped and Lullaby certainly has its strong points, from the first-half’s witty subversion of more conventional late-night entertainment to the subtle way it draws your attention to the process of falling asleep, bringing a light awareness to your body as it gradually shuts itself down for the night. I do wish, however, that the company hadn’t aimed their content so directly at images of sleep and dreams.

For all its kookiness, Lullaby can’t match the promise of its concept, but then, reality rarely lives up to dreams. And with that, I’ll to a much deserved bed.

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