FringeReview UK 2015
Framed by two violent deaths – the apparently inexplicable suicide of a young gay man, and the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013 – this Fringe First-winning solo show is a compelling piece about harm, complicity, and the forces that shape our relationships. Through fractured snapshots of seemingly disconnected lives, Men in the Cities presents a challenging but radically humane portrait of how we live now.
Men in The Cities is named after Robert Longo’s series of drawings, which depict the writhing and twisted bodies of suited human beings, suspended on white backgrounds. The structure of the play; brief, interrupted scenes of seemingly domestic and ordinary settings, soon reveals the agony behind the façade and that each of these characters are contorted with pain beneath the surface.
This is a solo show, performed by the writer Chris Goode, who stands at the microphone, barely moving, as he describes the lives of the various characters. His voice is soft and almost hypnotic as he takes us through the daily routines of Ben, Jeff, Graham et al. Hitting snooze, snuggling with lovers, opening shops – the mundanity of life, but it isn’t long before the darkness underneath begins to make itself known.
And what is that darkness? What is it that’s wrong with these men? Is there a word or a phrase for it? The author struggles with this, breaking the fourth wall repeatedly, emphasising that there is something real here; there is a problem that he really wants to talk about, but it can’t be wrapped up neatly in a sentence or a soundbyte, he’s going to need an entire play to try to describe it.
For all its knowing observations and jokes, this is an extremely serious play delivered with a bravery and directness that only really hit me at the end, as we all applauded and Chris Goode walked off stage. The applause was very real, but was he going to come back from the wings for a second bow? No. Of course not. We just saw inside you. We just saw the darkness that people simply don’t talk about. You can’t wrap that up with the same bow as you would a musical or a panto.
And similarly, finding fault with something so raw and skinless seems churlish and distasteful. I do want people to make theatre like this. I do want to look at the modern human condition, even if it’s horrible and twisted and contorted inside. But at the same time, I feel like a few tweaks could have made this even more powerful and affecting.
For a start, there are a couple too many characters. Because this is a monologue, I got a bit lost at times, and one pair seemed to just disappear near the end. I think their experiences could easily have been conflated into those of two other Men. Also, it was a little long. I think the same point could have been made in less time with slightly more impact.
Having said that, there is no doubt that this play affected me very much. I think it is a necessary and important piece of work, and the stage feels like an appropriate medium in which to discuss the issues.
One scene in particular, towards the end, will stay with me for a long, long time. Watching Chris Goode break down almost completely was extremely moving. He was in character but clearly saying things that came from within him. Not only did it tie up one story thread in a beautifully constructed way, it also made me see that maybe those gibbering fools shouting at shadows in the park are just a few steps further down the same path that we’ve all been on.
One of the problems here is that theatre that’s describing existential despair isn’t very comfortable. But it is important. Chris Goode is trying to name the un-nameable. He’s trying to describe the creeping malaise and skin-crawling discomfort that can, for some, and in some circumstances, inform so much of life. Why is suicide the leading cause of death for men under 50? This play is an attempt at an answer. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t perfect, but it is a bold and intimate look beneath the surface. It’s trying to show us something that we don’t always want to see, but that we do need to learn how to talk about.