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The Sleeper review at Rialto Theatre, Brighton – ‘intriguing, but shapeless’

The cast of The Sleeper at Rialto Theatre, Brighton

Journalist and playwright Henry C Krempels has written before about his experiences on the ‘immigration train’, the overnight connection from Venice to Paris via Milan that has become a popular route for refugees making their way across Europe.

Now he’s translated them into a play. A white woman in white pyjamas (Michelle Farenheim) encounters a stranger in her couchette (Sarah Agha), a pair of eyes in the dark. The train guard (Joshua Jacob) is called in to deal with the situation.

Krempels’ play explores a number of possible outcomes for this encounter – how involved should the woman get? How much help should she offer? – before imploding in a metatheatrical fashion with Agha stopping the show in order to question the writer and the audience as to what the point is of tackling the migrant crisis through theatre. Who exactly is this play trying to empower? Is there an inherent arrogance in presenting this story onstage in this way?

The premise of The Sleeper is intriguing but Krempels’ production suffers from a lack of structural rigour. Its pacing is sluggish and the repetitions soon grow tiresome. The moment where the play ‘breaks’ energises things a bit but then it lapses into the same patterns. Having set the situation up the play doesn’t seem to know where to take it.

Even though the play anticipates many of the questions it raises, about activism, appropriation and art, that doesn’t make them any less valid as questions. The actors are committed and the last image is genuinely tender but the whole thing needs to be tauter for it to succeed as theatre.

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Intriguing, if frustratingly shapeless, play about a chance encounter with an immigrant