By his obsessive and at times surreal morning toilette, the waiter in Inspector Sands and Stamping Ground Theatre’s Hysteria, based on the T.S. Eliot poem of the same name, reveals himself to be a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Pale and methodical, plagued by the darkest of premonitions, the waiter (played by Lucinka Eisler with something approaching genius) makes lifebelts of the minutiae of his day. Each twist of a champagne cork, each folded napkin helps him stay afloat; we know instinctively that a misplaced fork could consign him to the deep blue sea of human despair.

At the restaurant where the waiter works, we meet a man (Ben Lewis) and a woman (Giulia Innocenti) on their first date. They too are hostages to their own neuroses – he an academic increasingly unhinged by the parallels between his studies of and his own experience of the human condition, she a career woman struggling to sublimate her fantasies.

As in Eliot’s poem, their evening unfolds as a kaleidoscope of barely contained fears and desires. Lewis, whether galloping Mr Bean-style around the dinner table or hiding in the loo engaging in tuneful relaxation exercises, gives an energetic and assured portrayal of this bumbling young man and his seething self-doubts. Innocenti makes great play of her character’s secret desires. Dramaturg Jonathan Young and his team – lighting designer Katharine Williams, set designer Yukiki Tsukamoto, and sound collaborators Carolyn Douning and Adrienne Quartly – have created a funny, innovative and at times disturbing exploration of how humans hang on to their sanity. ★★★★☆

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