Bottleneck, Pleasance Courtyard

Originally written for Exeunt.

Greg is almost fifteen, almost a man. For him, manhood means a moustache and a swagger; it means John McClane in Die Hard, not taking shit from anyone. It’s nearly his birthday, and despite a lack of cash and the best efforts of his dad, he’s going to find a way to watch the Liverpool match. The world, full of girls and footie and best mates, is out there waiting for him. But sometimes the experiences that really mark the transition from youth to adulthood are also the experiences that scar for life.

Luke Barnes’ latest play is packaged as coming-of-age tale, but unwraps into something far more devastating and complex. The writing is nuanced and intelligent enough to keep its devices hidden and its direction obscured, until the destination suddenly appears on the horizon with gut-ripping inevitability. Without undoing that nuance, it is enough to say that its shattering denouement treads familiar ground, walking along a recognisable narrative with unblinking new insight. In its careful use of history, the piece can rely on the structure of the audience’s collective knowledge to hold its fragments together, while simultaneously smashing that scaffold apart.

Unlike other pieces that insist on reopening old wounds, Bottleneck feels urgent, fresh, full of rage. This is partly down to Barnes’ razor-sharp writing and partly down to a blistering performance from James Cooney, whose every coiled muscle seems to hum with barely controlled aggression. He is constantly hopping from leg to leg, never still, channelling the nimble footwork of Greg’s red-shirted heroes. Resisting any idea of the solo show as static, Steven Atkinson’s direction is ever moving, ever generating and radiating energy.

In this production’s appropriately bare presentation, the monologue is played out in an empty performance space below two glaring floodlights, which alternately flicker, die and burst blindingly into life. As well as effectively conjuring the space of the sport with which Greg so closely identifies, the stark quality of this lighting has the effect of the laboratory microscope, an unforgiving illumination under which this tortured specimen struggles and squirms.

As microscopic as Barnes’ focus appears, however, this muscular piece is not limited in its ambition to the singular narrative of its protagonist. Greg, as intensely drawn as he is, emerges as just one symptom of a wider problem. As youthful optimism becomes steadily jaded, the creaking escalator of social mobility shudders to a halt and Greg’s story becomes yet another instance of a life being determined by the inescapability of birth. If you come from the wrong place, this furious snarl of a play argues, then you’re fucked.

Photo: Bill Knight

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