One Hour Only, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

AJ’s mates have bought him a banging present for his 21st birthday – quite literally.

Out of place in a classy London brothel, the gift he ends up with is Marly, a cash-strapped student in her first night on the job, with whom he has more in common than he expected.

This is the somewhat contrived but dramatically fruitful set-up of Sabrina Mahfouz’s new play, a bite-sized meditation on youth, sexual politics and the economics of power. As soon as Marly’s mask slips and it becomes clear that this will be no usual encounter between prostitute and client, the unlikely situation becomes a platform for surprisingly honest discussion and debate between the pair. They might remain clothed, but the conversation is naked.

Marly, who likes sex but likes money more, argues her defence by suggesting that no exchange involving money is ever truly empowering; we are all, to a lesser or greater extent, whoring out our talents. Falling prey to Pretty Woman syndrome, AJ tries to talk Marly out of her morally dubious profession, but Mahfouz’s writing is too clever to allow this to become anything nearing black and white.

Through AJ and Marly, the piece asks questions about ambition, money, knowledge, the nature of modern feminism. There is also an acute observation about the way in which sex is viewed in modern Britain, with the line between casual one-night stands and paid-for encounters growing ever more blurred.

AJ and Marly’s conversational dance, engagingly played by Faraz Ayub and Nadia Clifford, takes place in a naturalistic, clinical hotel room, a naturalism that is offset by a striking back wall of lightbulbs in Francesca Reidy’s design. This simple yet fascinating feature fades and brightens, pulsing with the power games between man and woman, crackling like their obvious chemistry. Although Mahfouz’s intriguing, intelligent piece has yet to quite reach its own lightbulb moment, as the hour ticks past it leaves everyone wanting a few more minutes.

Photo: Jassy Earl

Strong Arm, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing.

Roland Poland has a lot to prove. Cursed with rolls of fat and a ridiculous name, he finds unexpected strength after visiting Plates, a run-down gym above a butcher’s shop where pumping iron becomes a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Eyes transfixed on the goal of becoming Mr Britain and discovering what Arnold Schwarzenegger calls “The Pump”, Roland guzzles protein shakes and doses up on science, trying every tactic possible to get stronger.

Although entitled Strong Arm, Finlay Robertson’s protein- and testosterone-fuelled play is more concerned with another appendage. Roland, played with humour and granite-eyed determination by Robertson, fantasises about having veins so popped that he resembles a giant penis. He spunks while working out and reels off the names of “hardcore” supplements that have a hint of the pornographic. In a deeply sexualised world, strength seems to be synonymous with virility, offering a deeply critical vision of what it means to prove one’s masculinity.

Much like Roland, Robertson’s writing has more to it than it initially appears. While seeming to promise to be a vaguely amusing one-man show, it teases at our expectations, even offering up the dramatically disappointing possibility of sentimental catharsis before snatching it away again. Although grounded in a recognisable world, there is just enough strangeness to the writing – the unlikely, Dahl-esque names, the vividly grotesque descriptions – to lace the piece with a sense of the surreal and sinister.

The same might be said of Kate Budgen’s direction and James Turner’s design, which each reveal themselves as increasingly clever. The performance space is backed with a set of four mirrors, as rusting and distorted as Roland’s perception of himself, through which coloured strip lights flicker like the neon of strip clubs or of the signs on which Roland dreams of seeing his name.

Because ultimately this is all about self-identity. In a society in thrall to the media, in which outcasts can become superheroes and a bodybuilder is a Hollywood hero, to demonstrate superhuman strength is to gain fame, validation and, most importantly, acceptance.

Photo: Jassy Earl

Glory Dazed, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

While his friends come home in coffins and wheelchairs, Ray knows that war can make you lose something other than life or limb. Returning to Doncaster with frustrated aggression and tortured memories, the only thing that Ray is any good at these days is fighting. But there’s no memorial service or prosthetic aid for being messed up in the head.

As Ray returns to the local boozer in a misguided attempt to win back ex-wife Carla, the bar becomes a vodka-doused pressure cooker in this new piece from Second Shot Productions, stitched together by writer Cat Jones with help from ex-servicemen at HMP & YOI Doncaster prison. Knocking back shots with Carla, old mate and pub landlord Simon and ditzy barmaid Leanne, the invisible wounds begin to split open and weep.

The production is knotted together by an explosive performance from Samuel Edward-Cook as “wounded lion” Ray. Dripping with sweat and radiating aggression, he is as pathetic as he is dangerous, yet still with a spark in his eyes that hints at former charm. Like Carla, we are unable to fully detach our sympathies, no matter how broken and violent he becomes.

This is not the first piece of theatre, or even the only piece of theatre in Edinburgh this year, to tackle the bitter legacy of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where it demonstrates nuance, however, is in its dissection of the relationship between the world of war and the domestic battlefield. As terrifying and as impossible to understand as warfare may be, Jones does not play down the struggle and drudge of everyday life, a drudge that might just be enough to make someone prefer the danger that war entails.

We are also left staring down the barrel of the bleak fact that no one really cares. The struggle goes on in the warzones and the suburban streets and all we do is sit and watch The X Factor on a Saturday night. In more than one sense, this loaded production departs with the perception that the world is indeed, in Simon’s words, a “fucking scary place”.

Photo: Jassy Earl

The Prize, Underbelly

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts, right? Maybe not for the hundreds of determined Olympic hopefuls we have anxiously watched compete during London 2012. It is this passion and intense desire to succeed that is explored in this delicately constructed verbatim piece from Murmur and Live Theatre, drawing on interviews with British athletes past, present and future. For them, failing is simply not an option.

Performed by a cast of five on an almost bare stage, the power and the poignancy rightly lies with the voices of those interviewed, their experiences communicated through the actors. Murmur has spoken to a huge range of athletes, from a female diver who competed in the 1950s, when the honour really was the taking part, to athletes with ambitions for this year’s Olympics and Paralympics.

The carefully selected and assembled snatches of the resulting interviews reveal the athletes’ drive, dedication and struggles without ever tipping into the trite sentimentalism that the media around the Games has often fallen prey to. The principal emotional manipulation comes courtesy of projected text revealing whether or not those speaking qualified for the Games, a device that could be intrusive and heavy handed but is here executed with heartbreaking simplicity.

Propelled by the energy of the Games’ success and looking towards the Paralympics, The Prize resonates perfectly with current national feeling. But by being so of the moment, it is difficult to envisage much of a future life for the piece. Beautifully formed though it is, it feels—much like the sporting triumph it revolves around—fleetingly ephemeral.

The Pride, Underbelly

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

Three, as they say, is a crowd. This observation is certainly true for married couple Bruce and Linda, whose over-friendly next door neighbour James gradually wedges his way between them. So far, so familiar. The only difference being that Bruce, Linda and James are lions.

This funny little oddity from Australian company Perth Theatre is a surprising comedic treat. It only takes the performers to emerge in their fur-adorned onesies to conjure a grin, and from thereon in the quirky comedy carries the piece through. Initially arriving as an extra hand for Bruce’s home renovations, James shows an increasing interest in his neighbour’s life, leaving the alpha male scrapping for his pride in every sense of the word. It is—a lot like the increasingly desperate Bruce—a bit rough around the edges, but its charm begs forgiveness for its faults.

The offbeat humour also reveals small, quietly poignant truths. As newlywed infatuation melts into dull routine, something as simple as the transition from energetic high fives to resigned handshakes speaks powerfully of the fading shine of marriage. The seeming obsession with the feature wall jointly assembled by Bruce and James, meanwhile, is a hilarious but acutely observed comment on our impulse to acquire and improve, and a warning against DIY if there ever was one.

There is little particularly new or memorable being said here, and the running time could easily be tightened without much loss. But even if its only lasting image is of a grown man moonwalking in a lion onesie, it’s an image worth the flaws.