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Brighton Fringe 2016

Sex, Strokes, Death, Denial

Twenty Two One productions

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Experimental, Fringe Theatre, Poetry-Based Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre, Verbatim Theatre

Venue: Sweet Venues Dukebox Iron Duke


Low Down

Twenty Two One productions brings Jack Duffel’s new poetic drama to Sweetvenues Dukebox at the Iron Duke. Jacob Ovington’s score underlines direction by Luke Olfield.


Jack Duffel’s play Sex, Strokes, Death, Denial comes to Sweet Dukebox via Twenty Two One in an early evening slot of 18.00.

It arrives with plaudits for the author Most Promising Playwright 2014 from New Writing South who know talent.

This drama began as a series of monologues and perhaps that element still inheres in its DNA. The play deals with the death of one off-stage family member, father Jonathan, whilst in the same hospital his cruelly-used wife Alice recovers from a stroke.

Her only child David begins the play in a monologue of denials and coping, indeed he’s been asked to embark on a therapy talking cure. He merely chatters displacement DIY and his wife Caroline’s reaction to it. The actor who plays her gets one line and this imbalance under-resources a vicarious three-hander that’s in effect two. It goes hard with the third.

The crux of the drama is David’s inability to articulate not coping with his fathers’ death or his mother’s stroke. She rejects his inarticulate sympathies and later gives him a Lego set in contemptuous challenge.

Alice’s monologues and climactic colloquy with her son is convincingly grounded, a slow reveal of love, abuse and motivation. Alice concealed her husband’s appalling cavalier treatment smeared with another woman’s scent. In hospital unwillingly, she now lets David know it. Warren Palmer’s David is a fine creation, but for another kind of play with perhaps a trajectory of total isolation, a tragic lack of insight only leading to suffering.

The play’s structure is skewed, sometimes very creatively. Verbatim theatre’s mentioned; perhaps this means extreme naturalism: the opening monologue’s one candidate. It’s convincingly, terrifyingly detailed in threads and bores. It’s as certainly too long; one doesn’t see David as psychologically belonging to feisty self-sufficient Alice played with consummate wry sympathy by Liz McNally. She’s emotionally canny as is – when she gets the briefest of chances or by reputation – her daughter-in-law Caroline.

Alice recounts a range of indignities and guys her own stubbornness. What’s exhilarating about her character is that she knows her weaknesses and indulges in them as strengths. She has a knack of turning comments on their heads, so to her son’s DIY distractions she counters: ‘Life is like a box of bolt-lets.’

What eventually draws mother and son together is a suggestion from a well-meaning therapist that David write poems, and the doggerel effect which is necessarily far better-skilled than that, leads to one of the most curious rapprochements of any play.

Responding to his mother’s first revelations, David’s eulogy whilst skirting disrespect owns the loving father he knew was unloving elsewhere: ‘No family. No religion. No love.’ Mother and son are mutually able to condense their feelings in poetry. Thus over the father’s grave a series of revelations and responses, almost a psalmic service, play out.

Jacob Ovington’s original score is attractive, Luke Olfield directs a play whose format and acting are indeed promising, though David who projects the quintessential loser seems hinting at another more tragic self altogether, somewhere east of Alan Bennett. It’s a play worth seeing as transitional in technique, career, and for its unbalanced, ragged but truly stimulating mix of genres. It needs revisions though.

Virtually nowhere on any literature, on sites or interviews of the play, are the three protagonists mentioned. Alice’s part in particular was beautifully taken by McNally and deserving of praise. Palmer builds a haplessness that seems thrown away on the arc of his development as seen here. After over half an hour’s searching this writer assumes they’re almost anonymous by choice or by gross oversight that mentions everything but them. I trust this can be amended.