Theatre Review: Blackout (Cottiers, Glasgow)

This review was originally featured on Exeunt Magazine on 10th June 2014

A personal connection with alcoholism is hard to feign. Those who don’t have any lived experience of the disease tend to fall back on bargain basement aphorisms, through no fault of their own: as a society, we still seem to perpetuate an image of alcoholism that would be better at home in the 1940s.  Though our language is essentially indifferent towards it, as a noun it still feels inherently masculine. It’s a disease for old men stumbling out of pubs after closing time. It’s warm beer and cheap whiskey. There is a collective blind spot that we seem to want to foster, and in it abide all of the alcoholic misfits who don’t adhere to this strict archetype. Perhaps they are the wrong class, colour, or gender. Perhaps they drink the wrong drink. Perhaps they just don’t drink ‘enough’ – how many binges is too many binges? In Blackout, playwright and actor Mark Jeary has set out to explore the nature of addiction, and to challenge some of our outmoded notions of what it means to be an alcoholic.

Over the course of 55 minutes, we hear five authentic and strong stories of addiction, one of them Jeary’s own. This is a journey that is sometimes euphoric, sometimes degrading, and predominantly out of control. Directors Joshua Payne and Belle Jones have sensibly given this play plenty of space to breathe.  The characters are shoeless and nameless. The stage is almost empty, save for a mattress (what is it about a double mattress on a bare floor that is so strongly evocative of a clammy, damp, run-down bedsit?) and a few chairs, giving the stories the imaginative legroom to be told without constraint.

The five narratives, constructed through a series of interviews with recovering alcoholics, are punchy, unapologetic, and unsentimental. The group begin by individually recounting their descent in to alcoholism, from the first illicit sip as a shy teenager at a party, to top trumping each other with increasingly more degrading and dangerous scenarios – the image of a woman drunkenly teetering and squatting to take a piss off the top of the Scott Monument is filthy and horrifying in equal measure. Ultimately, all of the five see that rock bottom coming up at them alarmingly quickly through the chaos, the sexual promiscuity, and the physical degradation, and all try and avoid it by delving deeper in to the drink.

The five-strong ensemble deliver equally strong and convincing performances, though it’s Miriam-Sarah Doren’s ‘Four’ who really packs a punch; her agonising, angsty snapshot of a mother who cannot help but terrorise her son during her blackout rages lurks in the mind for days after the final bows. What Jeary captures so distressingly perfectly is the utter selfishness of alcoholism. Even after nearly battering her son to death with a kitchen stool, ‘Four’ flippantly remarks, whilst smiling, that “obviously he’s no dead, ‘cause I’d be talking to you from the jail”. It’s this self-centered thinking that sends shockwaves through families, breaks selfless hearts, and burns what Jeary terms a ‘hole in the soul’.

This play feels like it is still on a journey, rather than settled in its destination. Though it is refreshing and commendable to see the unrepresented faces of alcohol addiction on stage, the fact that all five characters end up in recovery by the end feels neatly unrealistic and over-optimistic: frankly, not everyone does. Putting a personal preference for gritty endings aside, this one does feel too perfectly packaged. Regardless, this is an important piece of work that asks difficult questions of our perceptions of alcoholism. This is not so much Jeary’s heart on stage, as much as it is his guts. One character thanks God for his blackouts because they allow him to forget. I thank Mark Jeary for his Blackout because it forces us to think.

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Creative Writing: The Weir Ghost Story Competition

This short story was chosen as the winner of Donmar Warehouse’s The Weir Ghost Story Competition on 12th March 2014. 

Mum had texted me earlier saying she would pick me up after school. We were falling in to wintertime again, and the sun had dropped out of the sky. She was parked where she always parked, opposite the town church, and as I crossed the road to her waiting car, I remember thinking that it was an odd time of day for a funeral. The coffin was being carried slowly out of the church as I neared the car.

 

I chucked my rucksack in the back seat, feeling the uncomfortable blast of stuffy hot air on my face. As I slammed the door shut, suddenly the car was filled with the stifling, overwhelming, unmistakable smell of lilies, a scent so strong it left a residue in your mouth. It was like trying to breathe soup. As I turned to mum, I saw she had her hand over her mouth too. She looked as startled as I did.

 

And then it was gone.

 

I don’t believe in ghosts or in the afterlife. But maybe there are as many choices in death as there are in life, and that always leaves open the possibility of a soul opening the wrong car door.

 

Theatre Review: This May Hurt A Bit (Traverse, Edinburgh)

This review was first featured on Exeunt Magazine on 8th April 2014.

The NHS is unwell. Essential systems are frail and aging: having once been cured with a program of digitisation, top-down management and a slick face-lift, it now finds itself disjointed, dislocated and whimpering. Since its stormy birth in 1948, the NHS has been a bastion of good old-fashioned post-war Britishness, a symbol of our enduring commitment to supporting those who find themselves at their lowest ebb. It is impossible for most of us born into the world of ‘free at the point of contact’ healthcare to imagine any other way of life. But as the NHS moves towards its 70th birthday, its chances of making a full recovery are being called in to question; is it time for an early retirement?

Stella Feehily springs to the defence of our aging beloved against the aggressive agenda of privatisation in this latest offering from Out of Joint, produced in conjunction with the Octagon in Bolton. A traditional family story lies at the play’s heart, and their varying experiences and conflicting opinions of the NHS provide Feehily with a platform from which to extoll its virtues and analyse its weaknesses.

Widowed and recently made redundant, the icing on middle-aged Nicholas’ misery cake comes with a diagnosis of a chronic prostate condition. Accused by his snooty, pro-private healthcare sister of being a bleeding-heart liberal, he finds himself conflicted by wanting to defend the health service whose ideology he reveres, but whose long waiting-lists and administrative chaos are leaving him floundering and anxious. When his dignified and wise 90 year-old mother Iris suffers a fall and ends up in a ward at the troubled Harrington hospital, a sharp eye is cast on the pressures of a skewed staff to patient ratio. The second act examines the heart-breaking plight of both the overburdened, harassed, and distressed nurse who knows she is spreading her time dangerously thinly, and those in her care who struggle to maintain their humanity and dignity.

Overall, this play feels more like a political rant than a passionate scream. It is a collection of expertly portrayed, tightly controlled voices and vignettes rather than fully formed warts-and-all characters. Everyone can recognise the generic overworked-yet-caring eastern European nurse or the wily policy-crafting politician, but this technique overlooks the theatrical value of guts, flaws and flesh in a character. Relationships between the central characters are functional and sanitised, with whole scenes crafted purely to drive the political message forward.

While the central family story is suffused with a degree of pathos and empathy, other aspects of the play fall short of rousing the anger necessary to effect change.This is particularly true of the more preachy components of the play, such as the interjectory mini-lecture on the pitfalls of Private Finance Initiatives or the weather forecast charting the spread of hospital closures. Though informative and impressively Brechtian in the distance these scenes created between spectator and spectacle, they would have worked better if they had been balanced with a plot containing real human characters, rather than ‘types’.

That being said, the large cast portray an assortment of different characters with expertise and ease. They work hard to ensure the characters do not become caricatures, unless explicitly called for by the script (surrealist cameos from Sir Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan cannot be faulted for their technical precision and impact, though they do feel dramaturgically heavy-footed)All performances are slick, well-conceived and thoroughly believable, no doubt honed by the masterful touch of Max Stafford-Clark. Dynamism flows through the piece, and interjections of song and movement are a joy to watch. The production is well-paced and abounds with energy.

It is difficult not to feel engaged by This May Hurt A Bit; it is enrapturing, with its creative hospital-inspired set and vibrant verbatim soundscape. There is, however, an underlying feeling that the play itself might be preaching to the already converted – particularly in Scotland, where you find twice as many pandas as Tory MPs, and little persuasion is needed to elicit an audience to condemn any attack on the welfare state.

The play’s message is potent and prescient, so it is a shame that the text favours didacticism over other theatrical considerations (particularly characterisation, which would have allowed the production to disseminate the message by appealing to the heart as well as the head). However, if the goal was to set up the NHS as a jewel in the crown of our democracy, and communicate the message that it needs protection in a time of indiscriminate austerity, then this brilliantly directed and well-performed production certainly succeeds.

Theatre Review: The Pitchfork Disney (Tron, Glasgow)

This review was first featured in Exeunt Magazine on 25th March 2014. 

Presley and Haley Stray are more than just siblings. More than twins, even. They are chaotically, hermetically, inextricably bound in an isolated world of their own creation; ten years ago their parents died in unexplained circumstances, and now they are a modern Hansel and Gretel of 28 years, agoraphobic and blissfully medicating each other to chemical sleep.

Theirs is a love that both nourishes and destroys, that shields them from the pain of their stark loss, whilst also serving to perpetuate it. They joyfully lose themselves in intoxicating stories of the outside world which they so rarely visit, each one darker and more nihilistic than the last. Most people wear their love for one another like an overcoat, allowing it to protect them from harsh elements: Presley and Haley’s love is bare, vulnerable, raw, and bleeding. Their stifling, chocolate-gorging bubble is burst with the arrival of the sequinned, serpentine pub showman Cosmo Disney and his enormous, masked, and seemingly mute sidekick Pitchfork Cavalier.  Together they insistently taunt Presley, pushing him further in to his own mind than even he had previously dared go, all the while ominously circling the defenceless sleeping Haley.

All of the characters in Philip Ridley’s dystopian, brutal debut, The Pitchfork Disney, revel in the repulsive, and it takes a strong resolve not to flinch at some of the more ornate descriptions of suffering and torment. Haley, Presley and Cosmo have a shared understanding that torture is inherent in humanity, that once sinister impulses are indulged and acted upon they are compulsively replicated (Cosmo even manages to make a decent living out of it, swallowing live insects for euphoric paying voyeurs). In the world of The Pitchfork Disney, it is survival of the sickest; wounds are insistently probed, scabs are compulsively picked.

Director Eve Nicol ensures that this exquisite tension never drops until the final lamp dims; in one particularly stomach-flipping scene, Presley cradles the unconscious Haley’s head in his lap, tenderly stroking her hair, before starting to pull back her eyelids and touch her eyes. Strongly reminiscent of that scene fromUn Chien Andalou, you recoil when you remember Haley’s earlier prescient quip– “you know how easily horrible things can happen”. It is a wincingly clever and subtle piece of direction that moves members of the audience to hide behind their programmes. The intimate atmosphere of the Tron’s Changing House is sumptuously and softly lit, and Nicol ramps up the tension by having the invaders prowl and pace around the periphery of the performance space, physically embodying the swirling confusion of Presley’s mind.

This is a remarkably assured premiere production for new Glasgow-based company Heroes Theatre. Alan MacKenzie gives a stand-out performance as Presley, his relationship with his sister fluctuating between hyper-protective and toe-curlingly sexualised. Lucy Goldie’s Haley is exposed and dependent, and her beautifully crafted monologues flow lyrically and easily. This fantastic production is unfailingly humanising through the immediacy and urgency of its delivery. You leave feeling exhausted by the beautiful anxiety, and overwhelmed by the intensity and authenticity of the world of the Strays. For a production that inhabits the darkest, bleakest recesses of human nature, it somehow makes you feel relentlessly, violently alive.

Theatre Review: Refugee Boy (Citizens, Glasgow)

This post was first featured on TV Bomb on 15th March 2014.

When a poet decides to adapt a fellow wordsmith’s novel for the stage, there opens the possibility of creating a text that is too beautiful, too honed, too well refined. It must take true courage to even consider adapting a Benjamin Zephaniah novel for the stage; for one, Zephaniah’s voice is so singular and distinct, always managing to coax new emotions out of the vernacular. Lemn Sissay approaches this task with boldness and heart, and it pays great dividends in Gail McIntyre’s production.

Alem Kelo, a fourteen year old boy of mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, arrives in England with his father from his civil war ravaged homeland to enjoy “the best holiday of his life” – only to find himself abandoned and alone when his father decides it is safer for him to remain in London. What follows is his distressing, disjointed journey through the British care system, and his enduring desire to be released from its labyrinthine chaos.

This production is assured, confident, and compassionate. The central performance given by Fisayo Akinade is nothing short of exceptional; he is at once charismatic and endearing, beautifully portraying the difficulty in trying to keep hold of an identity when everything that makes you ‘you’ is so suddenly fractured. Alem struggles to remain a child to his absent parents, whilst at the same time becoming a young adult in the hands of the judicial system.

Gail McIntyre ensures that the tempo of the performance is absolutely in keeping with the pulse of the language; movement is constant, vital, exciting, and nerve-wracking. Touching too are the moments showing the fractious strain placed upon Alem’s host family, who struggle to bear the pain of loving and losing another foster son. Though the script is often warm and amusing, it does not give a neatly packaged, positive ending – rather, it is one of guttural hurt and loss. But as Alem’s father beautifully points out, it is essential to have darkness in order to see the stars.

Theatre Review: Wendy Hoose (Tron, Glasgow)

This review was originally featured on TV Bomb on 11th March 2014

Wendy Hoose, the first collaboration between Random Accomplice and Birds of Paradise, certainly comes with plenty of pre-show warnings; all this talk of strong language and scenes of a sexual nature is enough to set anyone’s heart a-racing.Though advertised as a sex-comedy, it asks some deeper questions – what are the rules of courtship in the digital age? With apps like Tinder and Grindr, what is the new dating dialogue – or have the flutterings of flirting been deserted entirely in favour of instant gratification?

Laura (Amy Conachan) and Jake (James Young) are two twenty-somethings looking for the same thing: no-strings-attached, drunken, Friday night sex. The audience is privy to their entire fated encounter, from the awkward first moments right up until the moment of getting down to the deed. But the flames of passion are extinguished when Jake realises that not everything is quite as it initially seems. Laura wasn’t joking about being a short brunette – she has no legs.

Despite only being an hour long, there is a lot packed in to Johnny McKnight and Robert Softley Gale‘s production – cruel humour and cattiness sit well alongside more delicate moments of character exposition. For Conachan and Young, the awkwardness seems to flow naturally and Conachan in particular does a beautiful job of painting Laura as a real woman with needs, wants, desires and obligations, who’s not willing to be repressed by the ‘disabled’ label.  Writer McKnight is the master of witty wordplay and Young delivers his painfully cruel rejections with perfect timing and zeal. All performances utilise audio description, BSL and animated surtitles, which add an extra level of narrative and character insight. At its heart, Wendy Hoose is an interesting exploration in to the parameters of no-frills dating, with some thoroughly enjoyable inappropriate gags to boot.