The Vaults, London – until 19 February 2023
Director Scott Le Crass is becoming something of a specialist at staging flawless one person shows. His career-redefining revival of Martin Sherman’s solo masterpiece of Jewish history and survival, Rose starring an incandescent Maureen Lipman, transfers into the West End this spring and is on no account to be missed, and now with Ben Fensome’s highly entertaining Buff he comes up with another production rich in detail and dynamism but displaying total faith in the material and the central performer. Both entities here repay that trust abundantly.
Thematically, talking about body fascism on the gay scene is roughly akin to shooting fish in a barrel: we all know it’s there, most of us think it’s terrible, yet a surprisingly large number of allegedly intelligent people sadly buy into it. Similarly, with the bad manners and casual cruelty that can result from the consequence-free world of online dating, where everybody’s looking out for the next best thing and to hell with other people’s feelings, and the carefully curated online lives that get presented but frequently don’t match up with reality. Fensome’s astute solo piece takes all this on board then digs deeper.
A full smorgasbord of gay issues, along with a fair amount of cracking humour, is filtered through the experiences of David O’Reilly’s newly single, plus-sized, early thirties London primary school teacher. This central character is a great role – authentically funny, eager to please, a little needy, too much in thrall to other people’s opinions, his wit masking an innate lack of self worth. The eyes linger just that little moment too long after making a quip or observation, the need to ingratiate, the body language is that of a person trying to disappear inside himself… it’s complex, entirely convincing, and performed with heartbreaking truth on a virtually bare stage, although when the acting is this accomplished you really don’t need decor.
O’Reilly, with his cherubic face, soulful eyes and the comedy timing of a true master, is an immensely appealing figure but he, and writer Fensome, don’t shy away from showing the less palatable aspects of the lead character’s personality when he finds his love unrequited and his life starting to fall apart. A nice touch by Fensome is making the unseen flatmate, the object of the lead character’s obsessive affection, sound like a pretty decent bloke and another victim of what people perceive from online perusing, except that in this case it’s that he’s not quite the arrogant gym-honed meathead he’s assumed to be.
If there’s a weakness in the writing, it’s that the switch from puppy dog to bitter bitch happens a little too abruptly and baldly, although O’Reilly’s sheer brilliance goes a long way towards masking the shortcomings. His breakdown is particularly impressively done, even as it’s painful to watch. The play lasts barely an hour though, and a little more fleshing out wouldn’t hurt. Still, this is impressive, timely, thought-provoking stuff, by turns screamingly fun then desperately sad. Well worth catching.