From the moment a grubby young man scampers through a series of imaginary corridors to vomit in an imaginary basin and dispense a ripe fart, you know you're in James Joyce territory.

1904 is the year in which Ulysses is set. It was also the year in which Ireland's National Theatre, the Abbey, was born.

Taking the former as their literary guide and the latter for their plot, Irish company The Corn Exchange tell the story of a single day, wildly imagined and painstakingly drawn, in which an amateur drama group struggle to establish a National Theatre.

Standing in their way are plotting republicans, the crowds thronging for a visit by Edward VII and a series of romantic entanglements by turns shrill and plaintive.

It's a great story, packed with politics and poetry. But what makes Dublin By Lamplight such a unique and energising experience is the theatrical form which director Annie Ryan and her company have created and mastered.

A bold conflation of commedia dell'arte with story theatre, it sees six actors with mask-like face paint narrate their own actions in a fiercely melodramatic style.

On a bare stage the results are at once intense, lyrical and extremely funny.

Aside from the silent movie-esque score, which I eventually trace to a piano crammed into one of the Theatre Royal Brighton's downstairs boxes, the actors create every sound effect themselves - right down to the shovelling of s*** and, in one typically detailed moment, the sawing of a loaf of stale bread found under a tea towel on the sideboard.

Helpfully, Michael West's descriptions are thrillingly tangible - one prostitute is "part liquid, part tentacle", another has breath which hits you between the eyes "like a methylated fist".

While most performance associated with mime is slow and deliberate, these guys have the speed, stamina and slick execution of animation.

Sometimes the narrative is swung to and fro like a relay baton, sometimes it is exchanged with a magician's sleight of hand, one actor exiting arm in arm with another's coat, for instance, while its wearer remains on stage to assume another costume and another character.

After the joyful vaudeville comedy of the first act, the ending is sudden and bleak as dreams melt with the fading lamplight. But the tragicomic expressions remain as sharp as if they were chiselled into flesh.

Theatre Royal Brighton has at last found a perfect fit in this strangely beautiful piece from a bygone age. My only complaint is that real life, afterwards, seems strangely ill-defined.

  • Until Saturday, May 12. Call 01273 709709 for tickets