Bunker Theatre, London – until 26 May 2018
As tours go, this one is not for the faint-hearted. Izzy Tennyson’s aptly named Grotty provides a rare opportunity to explore East London’s lesbian scene, but avoids any temptation to romanticise; this trip is not an advertisement, but a warts and all depiction of a community rarely seen on stage.
Our guide is 22-year-old Rigby, played by Tennyson, who’s relatively new to this world herself and experiencing something of a baptism of fire. As the play begins, she’s in a relationship with Toad (Rebekah Hinds), who’s older, more experienced and in possession of a significant amount of baggage.
This includes ex-lover Natty (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), a persistent and unwelcome presence in Rigby’s life, and former fiancée Witch (Grace Chilton), an outcast whose dark sexual proclivities are the stuff of legend. Almost inevitably, it’s not long before Rigby and Witch’s paths cross, marking a new stage in Rigby’s emotional and sexual education, and establishing a complex triangular situation that is, to use her own word, more than a little grotty.
Rigby herself is a fascinating creation: a twitchy, awkward figure who’s unafraid when addressing the audience to offer a sharp-tongued critique of both lesbian culture and the various personalities she meets within it, but often falls silent when joined by other characters who “outrank” her. Despite the community’s marginalised status both in society as a whole and within LGBTQ circles, there’s very little sense of unity or mutual support among its members, apart from when mocking outsiders who pretend to be gay because they think it makes them look cool.
Instead, Tennyson paints a picture of a claustrophobic, hierarchical world where everyone knows everybody else’s business – a sensation emphasised by Hannah Hauer-King’s direction, which places Rigby at the centre while the other characters observe her in silence from each side of the stage.
While the messy situation between Rigby, Toad and Witch forms the core of the narrative, the five-strong cast actually plays a total of nine characters between them, including straight friend Kate; a potential new love interest, Elliot, whose appeal seems to lie largely in the opportunity for Rigby to take the lead for once; and Dr Alexandra, whose analysis concludes that her patient is “suicidal, but not suicidal enough” to warrant treatment. There’s also a brief appearance from Clare Gollop as Rigby’s mother, in a late twist that sheds an interesting new light on all that’s gone before. We learn little about any of these women, who in many ways are more caricature than fully developed characters, but they do allow us a further insight into Rigby’s character, her mental health, and the ways in which she adapts her personality and manner to each new interaction in her quest to belong.
There are some aspects of the play that don’t completely work: many of Rigby’s monologues are delivered so quickly that it’s hard to keep up or fully appreciate the savage humour of Tennyson’s writing, and the plot ends abruptly just as it reaches an interesting potential turning point (perhaps a sequel in the making?). That said, a look around at audience reactions is enough to confirm that Grotty does what it sets out to do: bring an often overlooked subculture into the spotlight in a way that’s both educational and inclusive.