Jake Ferretti in Sleepless at Shoreditch Town Hall
Jake Ferretti in the play Sleepless, at Shoreditch Town Hall until 14 September

Margaret Thatcher famously ran the country on five hours a night, but for many a fitful night’s sleep can destroy any hope of functioning like a reasoned human being.

Insomnia, however, comes in degrees of severity, and at Shoreditch Town Hall this month a new play explores the most rare and horrifying strain of them all.

Sleepless is inspired by the true story of a family and the disease that cursed them for generations, playwright Hannah Barker tells me.

“The inspiration comes from a book called The Family Who Couldn’t Sleep, a true life account written by a science journalist about a Italian family that has this very rare condition called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI)),” the playwright says.

“It’s this frightening thing that belongs in a horror movie really because it’s this condition where your pupils become like pinpricks, you sweat profusely and you just really struggle sleeping.

“What that progresses to is complete inability to sleep and a slow and quite painful death over the course of nine to 18 months.”

Balvinder Sopal and Andrea Quirbach in Sleepless, now at Shoreditch Town Hall
Balvinder Sopal and Andrea Quirbach in Sleepless

The play takes the form of a detective story in which a woman whose mother has died in mysterious circumstances goes on a journey to find out what really happened.

In the process she learns about this peculiar genetic disease that robs you of sleep and progressively shuts down the mind and body.

Barker, a Londoner and former Dalston resident, says her theatre company Analogue, which has a reputation for combining powerful storytelling with rigorous scientific research, wanted to delve into the real life implications of having the disease.

“We wanted to show what it would really mean for a human being. There’s the fact it’s a rare human condition so there’s not a lot funding for research into it. So it really puts into question the value of a human life and how many people need to be affected for it to be worth it.

“On top of that there’s the question of living under the shadow this genetic disease. If you do have the disease there’s a 50 per cent chance you’ll pass it on to your children, so if you decide to have children you could be effectively handing down a death sentence.”

This may sound somewhat morbid, but Barker and the cast counter a potentially gloomy subject matter with moments of lightness and an exploration of the subconscious realm between being asleep and awake.

“What’s interesting about this show is what you can do within that zone of sleep and wake, you’ve got real creative licence to explore what’s in your subconscious,” Barker says.

As the daughter pieces together the jigsaw with the help of a doctor, becoming more of an unreliable narrator in the process, the play reaches an unexpected denouement.

Although reluctant to reveal more, Barker is confident the play will keep audiences wide-awake.

Until 14 September
Shoreditch Town Hall
380 Old Street, EC1V 9LT

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