Barber Shop Chronicles, West Yorkshire Playhouse

 

Language matters.

Just a few days before I see Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, Tory MP Anne Marie Morris casually uses the N-word in a meeting about Brexit. That anyone can “casually use” the N-word at all, let alone in public, astonishes me. Or it should astonish me – the implicit, deep-rooted racism of much of British politics has in some ways ceased to be shocking. But there’s something so sickeningly, complacently entitled about the comfort and the ignorance that allows someone to use the N-word at a public event as if it’s just part of an everyday phrase. Her apology, claiming that the use of the word was “totally unintentional” (how do you use the N-word unintentionally?!), is even worse.

During one scene in Barber Shop Chronicles, there’s an intense discussion about the N-word. Does it reclaim a term associated with abuse and oppression, ask the characters, or does it just make white people feel that it’s OK for them to use it again? (I think of Varaidzo’s essay in The Good Immigrant, in which she writes about the awkwardness of being the only black kid at a party when a rap song comes on: “I’m a big red stop sign in the middle of the dance floor, a symbolic reminder of why they shouldn’t use such a word and who they will offend”.)

Language is a thread that runs right through the play, which uses the social space of the barber’s to connect African men from around the globe. Elsewhere, a Nigerian man frets that the nation’s Pidgin language is being diluted thanks to its integration with English. Others argue in return that all languages must evolve. Words can be freighted with historical meaning and trauma, yet words are also slippery and changeable, a tension that Ellams skilfully holds in suspension.

The barber shop of the title is also a talking shop. Spread out across Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala and London, these are hubs for the African male diaspora, criss-crossed with connections between nations and cities. One character here has an uncle or a brother or a son over there (relationships between fathers and sons are another connecting thread). As one man puts it, the barber shop is like a pub for these scattered communities, somewhere to kick back and open up.

It would be easy for these different places and scenes to feel fragmented, but Bijan Sheibani’s production is remarkably fluid. Shifts of location are achieved with a swish of the barbers’ capes as the cast dance between scenes, backed by some inspired music choices. Rae Smith’s design helps tie it all together, too, with a wire globe circling overhead and different barber shop signs that light up to show us where we are. The scope is at once epic and intimate.

Representation matters.

When I interviewed poet and playwright Zodwa Nyoni a couple of months ago, she made it clear that seeing herself and people she knew represented on stage was absolutely crucial in her decision to start writing. There’s plenty of talk about diversity in the arts, but thinking about who and what is represented on stage is a vital first step – and one that can’t be underestimated. As Nyoni said of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I watch Barber Shop Chronicles, “seeing yourself here matters”.

In thinking about representation, I keep coming back to this blog by Vinay Patel. Writing about his desire to mainstream marginal narratives, Patel stresses that what he wants is “not parts that could be played by anyone”. He doesn’t want tokenism and he doesn’t want people of colour in everyman/woman roles that could equally be filled by white actors. Instead, he describes the ultimate aim of what he calls “Stage Four diversity”:

“Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.”

The characters in Barber Shop Chronicles are not parts that could be played by anyone. These individuals are deeply rooted in specific geographical, ethnic and cultural contexts, while not being purely contained or defined by those contexts. They are great. They are flawed. They are us and they are not us. They are allowed to be everymen in one moment and particular in the next. They are each unique facets of a black, African masculinity that is far from the homogenous mass that mainstream representations often paint it as.

The cast of 12 is large for a stage like this, but it feels even larger. Each actor transforms utterly from role to role, adopting new accents and gestures – little tics or habits that clearly distinguish each individual without ever straying into the territory of caricature. Such precision. While the huge collection of characters can sometimes be hard to keep track of, what they and the rich idiosyncrasies of the acting provide is a complex, multi-layered portrayal of black men, which is itself a political act.

Right at the end, an actor comes into the London barber’s for a trim. He wants to look the part of “strong black man”. I’m reminded of Desiree Burch’s blistering one-woman show Tar Baby and her anecdote about the demands of casting directors: be more sassy, be more urban. What they really meant was “be more black”. If there’s anything Ellams, Sheibani and their cast are attempting to shatter, it’s that reductive idea of the “strong black man”, that stereotyped blackness that stages and screens routinely perpetuate.

Stories matter.

As that actor at the end of Barber Shop Chronicles is painfully aware of – and as the actors in Sheibani’s production have no doubt encountered – stories of black masculinity have been damagingly narrow. The black men in Ellams’ play, by contrast, embrace a wide range of backgrounds, attitudes, professions and political views. That shouldn’t be something that needs commenting on (when do I observe that white characters on stage occupy a variety of different positions?), but the fact that it is something that invites comment says a lot about why we need shows like this.

Barber Shop Chronicles isn’t perfect. (After all, what is?) There are moments when the implicit is made unnecessarily explicit, and characters who appear and disappear all too quickly, leaving me wanting more. But it is an important, necessary and most of all thrilling piece of theatre. (And fun. I don’t think I’ve said enough about how fun it is.)

And it matters.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/bijansheibani/playlist/3NtrKtomvmA14J6uLJUSim

Advertisements

Persuasion, Royal Exchange

 

There’s a way of doing Jane Austen. Bonnets. Dresses. Men in uniform. Meaningful looks and wistful sighs. Dancing and afternoon tea.

This is not that kind of Jane Austen. Jeff James’s new production opens with heroine Anne Elliot splayed face-down on the stage under a harsh neon glow. It’s an immediate refusal of the poised female elegance associated with countless stage and screen adaptations. We start not with a ball or a country mansion, but with an image of raw regret and dejection.

That makes this version sound grim and gritty. It’s not. Though James clears room for the remorse and uncertainty that ripples through Austen’s novel, his adaptation (written with James Yeatman) is also an absolute blast. It excavates the satire of Austen’s work from the many layers of frothy period drama that have congealed around it while mashing it up with a series of gleeful anachronisms, from Frank Ocean to foam parties.

The early nineteenth-century manners and conventions gently mocked by Austen find present-day equivalents. The ball is traded for the nightclub and the seaside visit for the booze-fuelled beach holiday. The preoccupation with marriage, meanwhile, doesn’t sound as dated as you might expect. Though matrimony is no longer an imperative for young women, in the mainstream imagination happiness is still bound up in romantic relationships. Instead of the marriage market of Bath or London, we have Tinder and Match.com.

Not that these parallels are pressed. James’s production never explicitly relocates Austen’s tale to the twenty-first century; the talk of marriage and inheritance and the Napoleonic Wars keeps the narrative firmly in its historical context even as, in other ways, this version wrenches it out of time. It’s the sort of treatment that barely raises an eyebrow in contemporary productions of classic plays, but that until now has failed to make its way into adaptations of classic novels.

For this particular book, which confronts many of the tropes of Austen’s earlier work, the irreverent approach works a treat. The marriage that is elsewhere expected (in Pride and Prejudice, most famously, from the very first line) is interrogated in Austen’s final novel. At 27 – the start of the “years of danger” for an unmarried woman – Anne is contemplating what life without love and marriage might look like. Meanwhile Captain Wentworth, the man she loved and was persuaded to give up eight years ago, cynically gets on with what’s expected of him after making his fortune: finding a pretty young wife.

Crucially, this Anne Elliot is ready to tell her own story. As she wryly points out, men have long had the advantage – “the pen has been in their hands”. Now, though, she’s seizing a grip on her narrative. At first, that’s through sheer refusal: whenever her family attempt to interfere, she sharply spins them round and pushes them off the stage, ejecting them from the pages of her story. When this stops working, though, Anne is forced into becoming the protagonist and taking action. Where once she was persuaded, she now stands firm.

In this central role, Lara Rossi is as far from a simpering period drama heroine as James’s production is from bonnets and bows. She owns both her regret and her independence, asserting her right to hold on to past love and reject present proposals. Quiet but fierce, Rossi stares down those who oppose or belittle her. There’s a similar hardness in the eyes of Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth, even when frolicking with new fling Louisa Musgrove. When the former lovers lock gazes, the top layer of Alex Lowde’s stylish white catwalk set shifts position; the earth moves.

This is also possibly the funniest Austen adaptation you’re likely to see. It’s both a reminder of Austen’s wit – too often overlooked or underplayed in other versions – and a tongue-in-cheek take on the very act of adapting. James and his team crash the novel into the contemporary context of its staging in ways that are frequently hilarious. The laughs come both from incongruity and from the occasional, uncomfortable resonances. These characters are figures of mockery, but they’re not always as different from us as we’d like to believe.

The only misstep is a brief kiss between two of the female characters, which comes across more as cheap titillation than as a genuine attempt at queering the otherwise heteronormative narrative. It feels tokenistic – an obligatory but fleeting nod to the fact that not all relationships look like the ones portrayed on stage here. The production is at its best when it does not attempt to update Austen’s tale but instead plays on the gap between the novel and the world in which we now encounter it. Everything on a stage is always itself and something else, a duality that James acknowledges and revels in.

The night before seeing Persuasion, I was at the New Vic Theatre for their version of Arnold Bennett’s novel Anna of the Five Towns. It’s hard to imagine two more different adaptations to see on consecutive evenings. Where Anna of the Five Towns strived to be faithful, the adaptors of Persuasion understand just how inadequate the vocabulary of faithfulness is. When we read or watch Austen in the twenty-first century, we are always at a remove from it, reframing it within our own experiences and social conventions. It’s that messy meeting of past and present – rather than a prettified version of a disappeared time – that this Persuasion puts on stage.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Alternative Facts

 

The truth, it seems, has never been more manipulable. In both national and global politics, facts have been demoted to interchangeable tokens. Numbers depend on who’s counting. We’re surrounded by fake news and alternative facts. 50 shades of truth and untruth.

Breach are here to tell us a true story. You can read about it on Wikipedia. It’s an inspiring story of pioneering scientists reaching for the stars. No. It’s a tragic story of unlikely romance. No. It’s a shameful story of exploitation and colonisation. No. It’s an embarrassing story of good intentions gone awry. No. It’s a story of institutionalised misogyny and sexist sensationalism. No.

It’s a story about a woman and a dolphin. The woman, Margaret Howe, is a college dropout who loves aquatic life. Or she’s a pioneering researcher who’s passionate about her work. Or she’s a woman in a man’s world who gets taken advantage of and thrown in (quite literally) at the deep end. The dolphin, Peter, is a research subject at the heart of a ground-breaking experiment. Or he’s an aggressive creature who needs to be taught and tamed. Or he’s just an animal, trapped and confused.

It all depends on your point of view.

Breach vigorously underline these diverging perceptions. Tank is, at face value, a show about an embarrassing footnote in the Space Race. Howe’s experiments with Peter were part of a NASA-funded research project led by John C. Lilly. The aim? Interspecies communication. If researchers could teach English to dolphins, then they might just be able to teach it to any extraterrestrial life NASA stumbled across. Or so the logic went. But Lilly and Howe failed. After five years of experiments, the project was shut down in 1967. Now it’s best remembered for the sensationalised fact that, during a 10-week period in which she and Peter co-habited, Howe masturbated a dolphin.

Beneath this quirky factual narrative, though, Tank bristles with ideas. Most of these come out in the telling. Tank is sort-of-verbatim: as Breach’s quartet of performers tell us at the opening of the show, only a fraction of the now fragile tapes containing recordings of Lilly and Howe’s experiments have been made publicly available. Everything aside from the limited selection of transcripts, then, is a matter of filling in the gaps.

Breach flood these holes in the story with competing and contradictory accounts. While Joe Boylan (strange, beguiling, remarkably dolphin-like) and Sophie Steer (quivering with the effort of staying in control of the experiment) step in and out of the roles of Peter and Margaret respectively, Ellice Stevens and Craig Hamilton commentate from the sidelines, pitching in with different interpretations of the events. Margaret arrives at the research station in a red convertible, silk scarf blowing in the wind. Or she drives a Volkswagen beetle and strides up the drive with the professional confidence of a pioneer. And so on. And so on.

As the performers bicker over the details (was this a love story or an experiment gone wrong?), there’s more than a hint of Forced Entertainment’s truncated narratives and interrupted falsehoods. This, though, is Forced Ents for a post-truth world. Breach might never settle on a single interpretation of the events they present us with, but there’s a powerful sense of what’s at stake in the choice between different ‘truths’. The danger of othering – so alarmingly apparent all around us in this new Brexit and Trump dominated reality – comes across particularly vividly, as does the destructive human impulse to control and colonise.

There are multiple layers of abuse here, from the impossible situation in which Margaret is placed, to the cruelty that she and her colleagues inflict on Peter, to the domineering imposition of the English language on both the human and the animal world. And Breach are painfully aware of all this. They might clothe these complexities in fashionable irony, but theirs is far from an empty postmodernist interest in the multiple nature of truth. We can’t be sure that we’re telling the story truthfully, they seem to be saying, but still the truth matters.

Sh!t Theatre are also here to tell us a true story. Their story. Or rather, their story and the story of Windsor House, the former council estate block where they rent a cramped, letter-strewn flat. Theirs is a vision of London’s housing crisis through the very personal prism of their own experiences. It’s their truth, but it’s the truth for countless others too.

Letters to Windsor House follows the same goofy documentary style as most of Sh!t Theatre’s previous work, using songs and silliness to delve into a serious issue. It all starts with the letters for previous occupants that keep dropping onto the doormat of Sh!t Theatre’s Becca and Louise. Discovering a handy loophole, they decide that it’s not strictly illegal to open the mail of these strangers, and one by one they track them down. There are, of course, fake names to protect privacy, and an insistence on the truth of what’s being told combined with deliberate notes of doubt.

What emerges from the scraps of information they piece together about Windsor House’s former residents is an indictment of the sorry state of London’s housing. These strangers all seem to be afflicted by debt and other financial woes, or they themselves have managed to exploit the wonky economics of the capital’s housing market. Soon it turns out that even Becca and Louise’s landlord has been making a dodgy buck by illegally subletting his council flat. But when they try to delve further, the facts become tangled and it’s hard to know who to believe. There are conflicting motives, too. Do they care more about the truth, or about making sure they don’t get turfed out of their ramshackle home?

Sometimes, in Sh!t Theatre’s detective mission to find the recipients of the titular letters, the scale tips a bit too far from serious to silly. The most compelling sections, though, are when Becca and Louise investigate the new luxury housing development that’s going up on their doorstep. In one bitterly hilarious sequence, they screen secretly filmed footage of the two of them being shown around one of the outrageously expensive apartments by an estate agent who promises that the local riff-raff will be kept at a safe distance. At other points in the show, they play the soundtrack from the development’s ad – rhapsodising about a green haven in the heart of the city – over footage of the area’s drab and grimy reality. One truth superimposed over another.

I’m manipulating the narrative a bit here too. These are just two shows that I happened to see within a couple of weeks of one another; just two shows of the hundreds that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. But they seem, at least to me, to capture a certain mood. In both, there’s an urgent yet uncertain interest in the truth. Breach and Sh!t Theatre each want to get to the bottom of something – they have a sense that separating the truth from the lies is increasingly important – yet they also realise it’s not as simple as that. There are questions of power here, of who gets to control the narrative. In the hands of a misogynistic media, Margaret and Peter’s story can only ever be one of sensationalised smut or bizarre attraction. With the advertising budget of a property developer, a deprived patch of London can be transformed into a leafy paradise for millionaire investors.

These shows also seem indicative of an interesting new direction in documentary theatre. My problem with verbatim shows, whether dry stagings of official documents or Alecky Blythe-style reconstructions of interviewees’ speech patterns, has always been that they seem to be trying too hard to tell the truth; their insistence on veracity tends to make me prickle with suspicion. In their narrating of real events and experiences, meanwhile, there’s rarely acknowledgement in these shows of the elision and editing involved.

By contrast, theatre-makers like Breach and Sh!t Theatre enter into a slippery and subjective relationship with the real-life subjects they interrogate. They are less interested in a televisual documentary style that aims for an illusion of unmediated contact with the truth and more interested in the playfulness and fakery of theatre. But unlike some of the earlier companies whose influences are traceable in their work, their irony is tainted with unease. Because they know that there’s more than one way of telling a story, and they also know that the consequences of alternative facts are far from fictional.

It’s complicated, sure. But how we tell stories matters. Facts matter. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

LOVE, Birmingham Rep

 

The corner of a strip of wallpaper is curling off the wall. Hard plastic chairs cluster around tables. Dirty, chipped tiles line the ceiling and damp blooms in corners. A lone picture – one of those mass-produced prints you see in office lobbies and faded B&Bs the country over – is the one splash of colour on the walls.

Writer and director Alexander Zeldin’s aesthetic is less gritty realism than grubby realism. For this latest show, Natasha Jenkins’ set is meticulously stained and scuffed, careful to scrub away even the slightest veneer that might coat LOVE’s depiction of the crowded and run-down temporary accommodation in which an appalling number of people are forced to live. In aid of exposing this bleak reality, both stage and production are hyper-naturalistic. Kettles really boil. Toilets really flush. People pause and stutter and share awkward silences.

The situation that provides the premise for LOVE is perhaps even grimmer than that of the zero-hours cleaners at the heart of Zeldin’s previous show, the slowly devastating Beyond Caring. The grey, soulless space created by Jenkins is the communal area of a hostel where homeless families are crammed suffocatingly together, at the mercy of the council’s faceless bureaucracy and seemingly endless hold music. Stuffed into tiny rooms, sharing a broken bathroom and a basic kitchen, there is no privacy here. Even when all the doors are closed, the place hums with voices.

As with Beyond Caring, the action is all played out under bright house lights, with the audience bleeding into the stage. When I reviewed that earlier show, I wrote that Zeldin “asks us not to watch as audience members, but to look on as fellow human beings”. I’d argue that the same is true of LOVE, but I want to worry away just a bit at that distinction. Especially during some of the more wrenching scenes, in which characters are cruelly stripped of their dignity, I wondered whether I wasn’t just being made into a voyeur after all. Poverty porn is an ugly, ugly phrase, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable about my position as a privileged, middle-class spectator (a demographic that’s probably not too atypical of the audience as a whole). What are the ethics of presenting this to us?

Despite my discomfort, which I couldn’t entirely shake off, I do feel that there’s something subtle but crucial about Zeldin’s choice of staging. We as the audience are never wrapped in the comforting anonymity of darkness, gawping unseen at those less fortunate than us. Simply by placing us in shared space and shared light, Zeldin involves, perhaps even implicates us. There’s no solid wall of difference here. And when we are – finally, briefly – acknowledged within the drama, it’s with an overwhelming weight of emotion and responsibility.

For the most part, though, the fourth wall remains in place, if permeable. Through it, Zeldin offers us a glimpse into an eclectic selection of lives. The most seasoned residents are Colin (Nick Holder) and his ageing mother Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall), for whom he cares with a mixture of blokeish reluctance and surprising gentleness. Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab), arrived from Sudan, mostly keeps herself to herself, emerging from her room to make cups of tea and find phone signal. And desperately hoping to be rehoused by Christmas are Dean (Luke Clarke), his two young kids and his heavily pregnant partner Emma (Janet Etuk). Inevitably, they all impinge on one another’s lives, for better and for worse.

It doesn’t take long to see where the title fits in. Love throbs through this place. It’s not romantic love, not pretty love, not idealised love. Often, it’s love in its most unlikely manifestations; it’s love trying and failing and trying again to be expressed. It’s the kind of love that’s found in getting by or in cleaning up. It’s sudden, unexpected moments of tenderness and even, sometimes, sudden, unexpected moments of anger.

This kind of theatre demands patience. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how false and constructed theatrical ‘realism’ typically is and how rarely we see an accurate reflection of everyday life, warts and all, on the stage. These characters move at actual rather than dramatic pace. While that might make the action feel initially sluggish, the reward is in a rhythm and a precision that is unshowily exquisite. Zeldin and his performers have a musical sense of pace, allowing each beat to fall just so. And the detail of small movements is everything in this production, creating character through brushes of the hand and twitches of the mouth. It is, aptly for the subject matter, an incredibly compassionate style of performance. Everyone here is flawed, but everyone here is human. You might say the two are one and the same.

Often it’s what lurks at the edges of the show, hidden or only partially shown, which is most powerful. Like quiet Syrian refugee Adnan (Ammar Haj Ahmad), who swiftly appears and disappears, suitcase in hand. His fate remains unknown, but now more than ever you sense it can’t be good. Or like the unseen children of reserved Tharwa, on the other end of the phone and miles and miles away in Sudan. These stories of refugees, while not at the heart of the narrative, feel even more important now than when the show first premiered less than two months ago. The question of why we don’t see more of these characters has nagged at me since stepping out of the theatre, but perhaps their accusing presence on the sidelines is itself a comment on how we marginalise those who come to us seeking shelter.

Shelter is something that’s in short supply for everyone here. The invisible villain throughout is the stripped back, struggling state, with its irrational sanctions and its lack of social housing. Dean and Emma are punished for missing a job centre appointment on the same day they were being turfed out of their home by a rent-raising landlord, while Colin and Barbara have been caught in the limbo of temporary accommodation for a year or more. The piece never turns into a full-on polemic, but then it doesn’t need to. As with Beyond Caring, LOVE simply shows us the indignity of how cruel systems treat human beings, forcing us to really, properly look. And once you have looked, it’s hard to look away.

Photo: Sarah Lee.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, Theatre in the Mill

 

Lots of people talk about community in the theatre. I’m one of them. For the hopeless optimists among us, the communal space of the theatre holds a certain political potential, a certain utopian allure. Here we are, together.

But actually, in a lot of ways, the gig is more communal than the theatre show. In a theatre auditorium you’re (generally) separated from your neighbour by a few inches, a veil of politeness and maybe an armrest. Gigs, on the other hand, are all proximity and excitement and sweat. People moving as one, singing as one. Bodies connected by the vibration of basslines. Here we are, together.

Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is caught somewhere between the two. We sit in raked seating, keeping polite distances. We are, I think more than once, remarkably still. Yet this is, as Chris Brett Bailey’s scribbled-over marketing copy tells us, “a concert sprinkled with words”. Formally, it’s more gig than theatre show. Bailey and fellow band members Alicia Jane Turner and George Percy play us a haunting, disturbing and eventually ear-splitting post-rock symphony, building up to the volume of a small plane taking off.

Caught in the midst of all this incredible noise, though, we in the audience don’t sway or stamp or mosh. Instead we sit stiffly, disconnected, together but not together. That’s the problem with a lot of recent so-called gig theatre (a label that Bailey and co have – deliberately, I’d guess – avoided): it jettisons too much of the experience of gigs, creating events that feel diluted and frankly just a bit awkward. It tries to bring something of the gig into the space of the theatre without thinking about what the space of the theatre actually does to those inside it.

Perhaps, though, the theatre is the right place for Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight, for all the reasons it seems like the wrong place. Because Bailey’s show doesn’t feel communal. It feels, if anything, sort of atomising. Perhaps that’s because I’m a wimp with bad ears who promptly shoved in my earplugs for all the really loud bits and so felt wrapped in slightly muffled (but still fucking loud) sound for half the show. But it also feels in keeping with the whole gesture of the show that we’re each sucked into an individual vortex of sound, dragged down into our own personal abyss. Even the speech, with its fragmented swirl of death and horror and chaos, is disconnected, spoken not by Bailey in front of us but by his disembodied voice through the speakers.

For Bailey, as he explains in the programme, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is the product of a death heavy year. For me – and for many others watching, I suspect – it’s been a heavy year in countless ways. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight speaks to this year, or at least so it seems to me. I can’t quite shake the urge to compare it to This Is How We Die (because, as much as this is clearly trying to do something different, that previous show was so heart-thumpingly thrilling that it can’t help sticking around in the memory), but actually what feels at first like it’s missing from Bailey’s follow-up is perhaps aptly, intentionally absent. There’s none of the comfort of humour or narrative here, and relatively little language to hold on to. Instead it feels bleaker, more violent.

The words we do get – detached from Bailey, as if directly speaking them to us would be too hard – speak of suicide and catastrophe and the underworld. “This is a hell dream. This is a hell dream. This is a hell dream.” As the audience settle in their seats, the words repeat like a refrain that hangs over everything that follows: the piercing strings, the growl of electric guitar, the subterranean green glow of Lee Curran’s lights (later a hellish red), the tune hammered out on what the programme calls “piano corpses”. Even the instruments are perishing, their screams and howls a protracted, deafening death rattle.

At first, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight seems to play up to the expectations of This Is How We Die fans, its initial voiceover almost a parody of that earlier show and its Beat-poetry rhythms. From there, though, it moves into much darker and potentially alienating territory, continuing a journey into oblivion that began with that astonishing blast of sound at the end of This Is How We Die. It might not be a show to intensely love, but it’s uncompromising in its own intensity.

And it leaves me feeling oddly isolated from the people around me, even as the same vibrations rattle through our bodies. It suggests the distance of understanding that Bailey alludes to when considering why someone might be drawn towards suicide: “You’ve got no idea what it was like to walk to the fridge in their shoes, let alone a mile.” Sometimes, in spite of all theatre’s capacity for generating empathy, we just can’t understand.

Here we are, together yet alone.

Photo: The Other Richard.