Friday, August 12, 2016

A Boy Named Sue (C Nova, Edinburgh Fringe)

"The essence of a real man is that he falls in love with a woman."

This is the opinion of one of the three characters in Bertie Darrell's heartfelt triple-monologue A Boy Named Sue, which began life as part of the young writers' programme at the Bristol Old Vic and makes its debut at Edinburgh.

The maxim by which emerging theatre company Sue Productions goes is to "represent the under-represented", and while that may not necessarily be the case as far as the LGBT community as a whole goes, within that bracket they've certainly succeeded.

There's Louie, a 15-year-old lad who ran away to London but who now finds himself homeless, penniless and desperate, spending his days going round and round on the Tube and selling his body for the next twenty quid. It's not a new picture by any means, but what makes Louie different is a splash of extra depth to his character. Louie is not defined by being simply a teenage runaway hustler, he also struggles with OCD and has some pretty deep-seated issues about feeling clean both outside and in. This has repercussions on how he conducts his lifestyle.

Ian is a young doctor who has lost his boyfriend to the ravages of HIV and now finds himself alone in the world, unable to connect with others properly, and buying the time and bodies of strangers on dating apps to fulfil his appetites. Ian lives in an apartment in a converted office block, having refused to budge when the developers came in, and so finds himself living in a goldfish bowl, a glass reality where he can see everybody and everything looking out, but few people notice him or look in. His apartment is a metaphor for the way he feels, exposed but unseen.

And then there's Sid, a transitional transgender man who has begun to live his life as Sue, but not actually living at all. She has imprisoned herself inside her flat, refusing to engage with the outside world because everything and everybody in that hetero-normative world tries to hurt her. They bomb and they maim and they label, so after once being a seemingly gregarious young man called Sid, she is now gently blossoming into a young woman, but away from judgemental eyes.

All three characters are looking for connection. Despite Sue's encroaching agoraphobic tendencies (she prefers to stay indoors and watch reality TV and EastEnders), she dreams of having a 'real man' fall in love with her, to sweep her off her feet, treat her well, with respect and grace. To buy her diamonds and flowers. Sue has a somewhat old-fashioned, almost Victorian, take on what being a woman in 2016 is actually like. You can imagine she'd get along well with Emily Howard from Little Britain.

Director Claudia Lee, writer Bertie Darrell and producer Amelia Lupton

Ian uses dating apps to pick up men, and Louie is one of those men (or should that be boy?). Louie latches on to whatever stability he can find in lieu of his family, but reveals a very dark attitude to his lifestyle which shocks and appals the grieving Ian. Louie's willingness to become a member of the HIV club, in order to "get the worst over with" and remove the unknowing fear of getting it accidentally, is a polarising point. Ian rightfully rails against the boy's misguidedness, but it adds a different shade watching the play in the shadow of the recent controversy surrounding PrEP medication and the people's right to access it.

While the three monologues are essentially delivered separately, there is some interaction as the stories mingle, and the pace at which some of the dialogue is delivered can be breakneck. Indeed, the piece starts in fourth gear, making it a little disorientating to latch onto as one character's words are superseded by another's, then another's, then the other two again in quick succession. The flow slows down a little after a while and the stories begin to emerge more strongly, but the rapid-fire opening might benefit from a little more pacing so as to welcome the audience in rather than put them on the back foot.

Darrell's script is complex and mature, well-informed and obviously passionate about the subjects. Themes of isolation within the gay "community" and feeling disconnected from the real world play strongest, but Darrell also touches upon vital issues within the gay experience, such as internalised homophobia (Ian has a reluctance to accept Sid's life choice; Louie is on a course for self-destruction), grief, and the disintegration of real-world support networks (as Ian tells Louie, the NHS may not always be there to help him keep "healthy", and the fictionalised closure of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is a symbolic stab in the ribs for the gay community to support what it has while it has it).

A Boy Named Sue is a passionate piece of theatre, and the three performers carve convincing characters from a very rich script. Jack Harrold has all the funny lines as Sue, but he also has a poignancy and a rhythmic lyricism in his delivery. Oseloka Obi is utterly sympathetic as the floundering Ian (the only actor to scan the audience rather than remain internalised), and Charlie Jones exudes vulnerability and pain as a troubled, tortured young soul who just wants someone to look after him.

A Boy Named Sue is an impassioned call to arms to the LGBT community. It is couched in the expression of fear and isolation which will inevitably build up if that same community does not begin to look after and respect itself before expecting others to do so.

The stats
Writer: Bertie Darrell
Director: Claudia Lee
Cast: Oseloka Obi (Ian); Charlie Jones (Louie); Jack Harrold (Sue/ Sid)
Performed at Studio 3, C Nova, Edinburgh, August 3rd to 29th (not 15th), 2016. Performance reviewed: August 11th 2016

Sue Productions on Facebook (retrieved Aug 11 2016)

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