All You Need Is LSD review – Doctor Who meets Timothy Leary

You can imagine an Open University programme that sets out to explain the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. It would feature doctors in white coats talking about lysergic acid diethylamide alongside illustrations of molecule clusters and a few chemical formulae. What it almost certainly wouldn’t do is mirror the experience of taking LSD. Where would it find the language to express the altered states and shifting perceptions of a mind-expanding trip?

That’s why playwright Leo Butler takes what he calls a formal departure from his customary narrative style to fashion a self-aware theatrical collage full of postmodern meta-commentary. It also has a character jokingly called Leonora Butler, winningly played by a deadpan Annie Fitzmaurice. It sounds indulgent and, in this Told By an Idiot/Birmingham Rep production, it frequently is, but Butler’s higher purpose (and I do mean high) is to replicate an encounter with a drug that itself induces a formal departure from reality.

Altered states … All You Need Is LSD

Looping about with stream-of-consciousness freedom, All You Need Is LSD draws on the down-the-rabbit-hole imagery of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the multidimensional science fiction of Doctor Who, references literary trippers from the opium-eating romantic poets to Aldous Huxley, and bats back and forth between the serious psychiatric work of Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered the drug, and the colourful psychedelia of Timothy Leary. All this spins in and out of view on Sophia Clist’s retro-futuristic set as Butler himself/herself signs up for a clinical LSD trial and becomes at one with the universe – even if it leaves some explaining to be done to his/her infant daughter whose transformational imagination needs no chemical stimulus.

Directed by Paul Hunter and Stephen Harper, the four-hander provides a bumpy ride, crude caricatures one minute, deathbed tragedy the next, but even if the play is neither as outlandish or as funny as it seems to think it is, the production has a jolly air of abandon. Somewhere amid his cross-cultural references and free-flowing train of thought, Butler argues against prejudicial attitudes to LSD use, whether recreational or medical, although his refusal to gloss over the counter-cultural excesses and hippy cliches would make anyone cautious about deregulation.

At the Unity theatre, Liverpool, until 20 October. Then touring.

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