Southwark Playhouse, London – until 6 February 2016
BARE AND BLEAK: A YOUNG MAN’S CRISIS
The playtext of Rob Hayes’ monologue austerely insists that performance “should not exceed 60 minutes in duration”. This author doesn’t want it larded with significant pauses or dreamy mannerisms: and in honouring his intention, the remarkable Ben Whybrow (directed by Clive Judd) brings it in just under. No mean feat: for all its emotional intricacy and verbal subtleties, the play at that length requires rapid-fire delivery bordering, quite often, on gabble.
And that is its strength, and a reason why this 2015 applauded Edinburgh production richly deserves its trip south. It is both terrifying and intermittently funny, unnervingly perceptive about a particular young male crisis. It is deadly earnest in its determination to strip bare some, at least, of the reasons why the seats need to be strewn with pamphlets and cards from the co-producers, the charity CALM: Campaign Against Living Miserably, which offers peer support to men in crisis.
The protagonist, unnamed, is pacing like a nervy zoo animal, in a state of tense distress and on the edge of suicide. His girlfriend has left him; he is struggling – explicitly and with bleak effective laddish humour – with the physical symptom of an extreme eleven-day constipation. He has a job, which he is losing because he won’t go in, and dreams of writing jingles for advertisements because of their short but unforgettable perfection. He has tried Seroxat, but won’t go back to the GP because of an unreasonable, OCD dread of germs, which also makes him leave his shopping in bus shelters rather than carry bacteria home. He is sleepless, distressed, griping, sorrowful, desperate: suicidal, but uncertain of achieving even that.
The character grows round and likeable though. He is saddened by porn’s brutality, a “beautiful person providing this profane service for me”, and remembers the loving, decent relationship he has lost. But at extremes he veers off into violent fantasies of killing and predation, crying how little is left for men and their hard-wired need for ascendancy. “We’ve been fixed by society, neutered. By the markets, by diversity, by unwarranted shame, by these loosey-goosey ideas like equality which push exactly not just every single structure mankind has ever built, but also against human nature itself”. He cries “Shaming us won’t work, nothing will work…you’re only pushing us deeper underground, making our conviction all the more venomous. And we will win, we will do anything to win”.
If that, to a feminist reader, seems horrible I can say that it doesn’t actually feel that way on the stage. Because the young man is in front of us, suffering greatly, trapped between an old message telling him he is a lord of creation and a real world which informs him that he isn’t. He needs a father, an elder brother, a mentor, an adult woman who loves him and laughs with him about the cosmic joke of it all. Not every suicidal young male draws his pain from this precise source. But some do, and it was good to see so many young men – and girlfriends – in the audience.
box office 0207 407 0234 to 6 Feb