Adaptations of novels into one-person shows have yielded powerful theatre in the last few years: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride at the Young Vic is one of my most memorable shows ever. Boy Parts, the acclaimed novel by Eliza Clark, is here transformed into solo show by playwright / adapter Gillian Greer and director Sara Joyce. A few years ago, the novel was a darling of BookTok – not that I’d’ve known.
It’s touted as the successor to Fleabag or One-Woman Show, with whom it’s rubbing shoulders at the Soho Theatre. And it’s a successful, though flawed, chaser to the above shows, though a more apt comparison would be to Irvine Welsh’s Filth – also adapted into a solo show in addition to its cinema incarnation.
Irina, played here by Aimee Kelly, lives in Newcastle and wants desperately to be untouchable, invulnerable – “what do I have to do,” she screams at us, “for you to see me as a threat?” She’s definitely a erotic artist, possibly a pornographer, possibly a statutory rapist, possibly a child pornographer, and certainly a violator of consent. And it only gets darker from there. Her weapon of choice to make herself feel powerful is the camera – she takes eroticised, gaze-y images of young men, the younger the better. (And she never touches them.) When an east London gallery gets in touch expressing interest in her work for an upcoming show, it’s down to Irina to come up with the goods and make some work that will truly shock the culture vultures and gatekeepers of the art world.
The production has no interest in making Irina likeable, and it’s right not to – we lose a lot of time and energy feeling like every character needs to be relatable or sympathetic. Irina is simply alarming, and gets more so as the show builds. (If anything, it’s more successful in this regard than Fleabag, who always did want so desperately to be liked, even when leaving guinea pigs to slowly die.) Many of her subjects respond aggressively to her perceived control over them, showing the proprietary, perhaps even violent, nature of the act of photographing. The climax reveals her as more Clytemnestra than Waller-Bridge: grotesque, unapologetic, and tragically trapped.
It comes into its own when Kelly embodies the many different characters Irina meets and interacts with, each of whom has a distinct and clear voice and physicality. There’s a moment about 25 minutes which silhouettes Kelly against a projected red rectangle, where the show hits a stride. Prior to that, it’s a little sluggish, and an initial scene could almost be cut entirely. At several points, Kelly will hear a phone-vibrate sound, hold up a hand to simulate the phone, and then describe to us that she’s got a text message. I was left yearning for the motor-mouth pace of This Is How We Die or the razor-sharp physicality of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Odyssey – also from the solo show stable. It gets laughs (notably in a description of sexual assault) but could have got stronger ones. At times, it feels as if Kelly is holding back Irina’s inner scream, and it never quite hits the demented stride it feels like it’s searching for.
That said, the last fifteen minutes or so take on a nightmarish energy, backed up by Christopher Nairne’s horror-movie-inflected lighting. The art-show aesthetic of Peter Butler’s stage gives fuck-off Berlin minimalist vibes, reflecting the subjectivity of the space: we’re seeing the world the way Irina wants it. Tom Foskett-Barnes’ sound design gives some lovely electronic stings in transitions, though the substantial use of Goldfrapp’s Lovely Head strikes an odd note when the character elsewhere criticises a man’s fashion sense as ‘a little bit 2015’. A standout contribution comes from Hayley Egan’s video and production design, where boxes and shapes projected on the back wall create some visually arresting imagery. Elsewhere, though, Joyce and Egan’s choices are difficult to interpret: the images of Irina’s garage never lead anywhere, and some imagery in this quarter isn’t given breathing space.
At its best, the piece is genuinely disquieting, and I enjoyed being taken on the journey it wanted to take us on. Elsewhere, it lacks punch and some creative decisions strike an odd note. Still, the Soho crowd loves it – though I’d love to know how it would go down in Newcastle.