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All You Need Is LSD @ The Birmingham Rep

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Leo Butler’s “All You Need Is LSD” is a play combining “history, science, and [Butler’s] own personal history”, in regard to psychedelics. Whilst it had moments of both heaviness and hilarity, it lacked the structure that even the label of an ‘experimental’ play cannot hide.

Image courtesy of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Starring four actors, who multiroled throughout, the play opens with Annie Fitzmaurice playing writer Leo Butler as he describes his play to Professor Nut (George Potts), and the process it went through to be performed on the Rep stage. This initial dialogue, accompanied with Sophie Mercell appearing from a gap in the stage to recreate a phone call Leo had with the Rep, establishes much of play’s tone.

Indeed, the metatheatrics started on quite a humorous note with Jack Hunter appearing amidst the conversation as the personification of the 90s psychedelics scene (a.k.a. Dr Timothy Leary) when mentioned, or much later as Leo’s parents with lines such as, “Oh stop doing that fourth wall shit, they were doing that in ancient Greece.”

But this style descended into tedium at certain points, especially with the scene in which (to demonstrate the effects LSD has on time perception) Fitzmaurice and Potts repeated a short dialogue three times. Very much in the vein of, “Very clever, but we get it now”, the play did feel like a series of sketches or drama exercises fashioned together with quite crafty transitions.

Arguably, if the same amount of thought was given to the overarching structure as was to the transitioning, it would be much easier to give this play a better rating. A notable example includes a flashback with Sophie Mercell, possibly the strongest of the cast, playing the enthusiastic Dr Albert Hofmann (the creator of LSD) and, as they walked backwards and monologuing about their first ‘acid trip’, their words were echoed by Professor Nutt who took their place on stage reading from Hofmann’s memoirs in the present day.

The play really shone for this kind of fluidity and the speed with which they assembled visual gags, like Dr Hofman’s stimulated bicycle ride where Mercell climbed over a spinning wheel, which was part of the set, and had her lab coat fanned out by one actor as the others floated past random objects like a cauliflower and a furry caterpillar.

However, beyond the structural issue, the script itself felt like it needed re-editing. As well as numerous historical figures and Leo’s own life, there was a confusing side-plot which drew in characters from Alice in Wonderland. Initially, the play introduced the white rabbit, who was barely seen again, as well as Alice (Mercell) whose entire role seemed to be wordlessly flitting between scenes whilst gasping with a doll-like expression.

Other thematic elements were scattered in, like Dr Leary’s Mad Hatter top-hat and Leo’s daughter’s Wonderland cot-mobile, but their purpose, other than having the aesthetic surface appeal of being from a story linked with sensory-altering substances, was entirely lost on me. Maybe it was making a link between drug-induced hallucination and a child’s imagination which was briefly mentioned at the end, but the reference was so vague that they could have replaced Alice in Wonderland with anything related to drugs, like Trainspotting, and it would have had the same impact.

I really wanted to like this play because it had so many great moments, from the surreal comedy of Leo falling out a window whilst high to the heartfelt death of Aldous Huxley, but it still felt like an unfinished piece. With revisions to structure, and some liberal pruning, “All You Need Is LSD” has the potential to really make a statement about psychedelics and where they go from here.  

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