Brighton Fringe 2011
Grimly comic and superbly written and acted dirty realism, exploring city under life with veracity and integrity.
Colin is a council worker with learning disabilities, and if he isn’t being harassed by kids calling him a spastic nonce, he’s being harassed by his mate Kevin, his sister Marie and her pursuing pimp Gary. In ascending order of violence and manipulation Marie at least has some residual affection for Colin, not something the other two have any time for. Writer Ben Keyworth’s play is utterly raw realism with the jokes embedded in the carnage. Exploitation is the name of the game – cuckooing refers to the befriending then taking advantage of a vulnerable adult in order to use their council home as a base for drug taking and dealing.
The play starts with Kevin alternately bullying and cajoling Colin, embedding himself in Colin’s life, threatening to withdraw the “protection” he gives Colin from the kids outside. It’s bleak, uber-realist writing, intensely portrayed – Ben Keyworth is entirely in the skin of the vulnerable Colin, an object of pity and slight disgust, framed by the dirty disarray of his flat and his Disney paraphernalia, Nick Warnford slimily believable as the “mate” who sees and takes additional opportunities to extract more money and concessions from Colin. When his sister returns things might take a turn for the better, but she is a strung out junky (it’s a great physical portrayal, you can see her condition in her itching, jerky movement), and then there is her pimp, tracking her down. There is a horrible hierarchy here, topped by the Carl McCrystal’s overtly violent thug Gary. All of them want things from Colin, and they aren’t going to take no for an answer.
The portrayal is taut and unremitting except for occasional flashes of connection between Colin and Marie. The comedy is essential to keep the audience from drowning in a very bleak pool, but the writing still keeps to a believable and naturalistic arc. The achievement of this play is to take a subject which is so dark, and not to play it for laughs as such, nor to leadenly pile on the misery, but to keep the audience gripped and thinking throughout.
There’s dramatic tension too in the structure of the play – the first half ends abruptly as his returning sister meets the “mate” Kevin, and you return after the interval expecting an explosive encounter. The second half is dominated by the interplay between the three exploiters and a bewildered Colin. All of the characters are rounded, layered, and unfaltering performances. (An aside: one of the things actors complain about is being approached in the street as if they are the character they play. This could be an issue for the thug played by Carl McCrystal, so the programme notes say that “Carl loves to bake and wishes for world peace” it’s probably a sensible precaution.)
There’s depth in the writing – the subtleties of the characters’ self deception continually depicted in their dialogue with Colin, his simple naivety pointing up their betrayals, and their side-stepping of any of his difficult questions, by abusing his trust or simply threatening him with withdrawal of the affection he craves. The tragedy of this situation is that Colin himself is to some extent a success story – a vulnerable lad who has a job as a cleaner, is supported by his work mates and managers, is housed. What goes wrong is the exploitation of this very success both those who have failed far more fundamentally, and whose essential humanity is compromised. Colin himself is seen as fighting back, even if bullied or manipulated into submission – he has weight and complexity as well. This is a very moral play, and a depiction of a very harsh reality, and set in the context of say the mother who killed herself and her disabled daughter because of the harassment they received, a reminder that the vulnerable are just that: vulnerable.