Hysteria is an extraordinarily brilliant intellectual comedy with very dark undertones.
It's 1938 and Sigmund Freud has fled Nazi-occupied Austria for the safety of North London. But he is not a well man. He is 82 years old and the prognosis from his personal physician Dr. Yahuda is not good. Freud wants nothing more than to live out his remaining days in peace but that hope is shattered when Jessica, a young Freud obsessive, turns up at the great man's house demanding time on his couch.
Freud refuses; Jessica raises the stakes by taking off her clothes. When Salvador Dali also turns up unannounced demanding time on the couch, only to find a partly-dressed woman already in his place, Freud has some explaining to do.
The resulting farcical comedy is amazingly executed. Tightly written and perfectly produced, the pace never lets up. The obligatory elements of a farce are all in place - fast physical comedy, bizarre misunderstandings, webs of deceit that get ever more ridiculous and men losing their trousers.
The intrinsic humour in watching the great minds of Freud and Dali reduced to digging themselves into ever deeper holes is wonderful. Yet the dialogue is also smart and cerebral with aspersions of Jung, points of psychoanalysis, digs at Surrealist art and Freudian slips taking the place of the more usual slapstick lines.
But the play is as much a dark drama as it is a comedy as it becomes increasingly apparent that Jessica's motivations are not just that of a young groupie, but more of a woman with a personal grudge against Freud and his analysis of hysteria and sexual abuse.
It is brave writing to match such a profound farce with such a dark subplot, even more so as the play looks to incorporate moments of bizarre surrealism when Freud's personal psychology unravels. But it is all so skilfully executed that you are left applauding brilliant theatre.
The acting from the cast is superb. All show such great versatility for the emotional drama of the play, as well as its physical comedy. Anthony Sher as Freud, an old man with outdated ideas in a fast-changing world, is superb. He brings such weariness to Freud's mind yet such sprightliness for the fast-paced comedic moments.
Adrian Schiller's Dali is perfect. The vanity of the man is evident but it's a characterisation that keeps the comedy coming without ever once becoming pantomime. His timing seems effortless.
Lydia Wilson (Jessica) and David Horovitch (Dr Yahuda) are also excellent, anchoring the play beautifully in the dark sinister storyline of Freud's work and imminent death, letting the egos of Freud and Dali dance around them yet never letting their characters become overshadowed.
Yet brilliant as the cast is, the star of the show is writer and director Terry Johnson. His writing and direction was ambitious but the gamble has paid off. Hysteria is brave writing brilliantly executed.
Hampstead Theatre, London
To October 12, 2013