I ❤ Peterborough, Pleasance Courtyard

Originally written for Exeunt.

Love is a feeling that you can’t describe in a word, not really. That is the real reason, Joel Horwood’s quirkily beautiful new piece argues, why we draw anatomically inaccurate symbols on Valentine’s Day cards and tacky tourist T-shirts. We struggle to say it in words, so we make it into a picture.

The love that Horwood’s play paints is romantic love, parental love and the strange, unconditional love mingled with hate that we often feel for the place we come from. In the unlikely surroundings of Peterborough’s cul-de-sac ridden suburbs, Michael – or, as he’d prefer us to call him, Lulu – applies his lippie and slips on his ruby red heels. He is in pursuit of love and happy endings, but that love arrives in a somewhat unexpected package when his teenage son Hew arrives at his doorstep.

As the ruby slippers hint at, for Lulu and Hew there’s no place like home. Their small, chintz-decked abode is a refuge from the jeers and stares of the town, of the eyes that would “take bites” out of them. Within this gaudy sanctuary, father and son work on a double act, escaping the world’s cruelties through the retreat of music. Jumping off from this platform, Horwood, who also directs, is able to flirt playfully with form, clashing drama with cabaret and throwing occasional meta-theatrical winks to the audience.

A keyboard sits at the back of the performance space, at which Jay Taylor’s awkwardly gentle Hew plays musical accompaniments and lends his voice to Lulu’s stories. It is these stories which form the real heart of the piece, with Milo Twomey’s warm, overtly theatrical presence as Lulu spreading across the stage. Yet beneath the brash persona there is a strain of brittle vulnerability and viciously protective violence, a violence that is reflected in Horwood’s words.

Love is often meshed with pain, with fists and bites, while recurring interruptions remind us of the people blowing each other up around the globe at the same moment the onstage events are occurring. It is a shade of darkness pasted with glitter that colours the entire piece but is not fully interrogated. Tenderness, it is perhaps suggesting, can never come without scars.

Horwood’s writing offers up phrases like candies, sweetly rolling on the tongue. He is a creative master of the simile; love feels like “driving over humpback bridges too fast”, while a girl’s face “trembles like a pond”. Grit-flecked poetry is crafted from the soulless concrete, proof that anything can be beautiful if it means enough. In this way, Peterborough slowly becomes a mirror for these two damaged inhabitants. They might be odd and occasionally ugly and difficult to love, but the possibility for love still remains.

Photo: Mike Kwasniak

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

Punch & Judy, Pleasance Courtyard


Originally written for Fest Magazine.

In the midst of a festival where puppetry is back in vogue, Tea Break Theatre is pushing against the tide. This ramshackle rendition of the traditional seaside favourite trades puppets for actors, with three performers taking on the roles of Punch, his put-upon wife and the wide cast of supporting players.

All the usual suspects are present, from the sausage-guzzling crocodile to the incompetent constable, rolled out in a constant, chaotic merry-go-round of costume changes. Making little attempt to break away from the show’s groaningly recognisable conventions, Punch encounters these characters one by one in an anarchic succession of scenes, piling up the bodies as he goes but achieving little else along the way. Even the sitting duck of the banker gets off with the lightest of satires.

If, by swapping puppets for humans, Tea Break Theatre has aimed to give this sprawling farce any real life contemporary resonance, it is almost impossible to detect. The early scenes are so packed with below-par slapstick and strained humour that when events do take a turn for the darker, any sense of menace is unearned. Only in the dying moments, as desperation cracks his pasted on smile, does the image of Punch gain anything approaching potency.

“If you be happy,” Punch says to the audience as the show opens, “me be happy too.” By these standards, Punch’s smile is not about to return any time soon.