FringeReview UK 2018
Directed at the Bunker by Hannah Hauer-King and designed on a shining black square with comfy cloth cubes by Anna Reid it’s lit noirishly by Zoe Spurr (with edgy night chinks of light) where Alexandra Fay Braithwaite’s composition and sound system pump smoky music in like dry ice.
Izzy Tennyson’s not herself. Not entirely. ’Are you turned on by mental health issues in people… Like fancying someone with cancer? Is that really bad?… Do people who take the jump enjoy the fall before they hit the ground?’ We almost forget these questions till they’re partly echoed in another character. So many laughs and cringes lie between.
They’re the dark halo of mental distress weaving a soft shroud for the often hilarious, self-described grotesqueries that the writer/actors central persona Rigby encounters as a twenty-two-year-old ingénue on the Dalston lesbian club scene. It’s where women are confined to a box room below the gay bar thumps. Not that ingénue as it happens: Rigby’s sharp-witted, an MTV slave intern who can take care of herself and covet others’ flats. She’s needy, but is it emotionally or materially or is it because of what orphaned her?
For a writer starred with expectations for her one-person shows Grotty marks a five-hander advance. No pressure. It’s heartening that Damsel Productions have backed this. Ably directed at the Bunker by Hannah Hauer-King and designed on a shining black square with comfy cloth cubes by Anna Reid it’s lit noirishly by Zoe Spurr (with edgy night chinks of light) where Alexandra Fay Braithwaite’s composition and sound system pump smoky music in like dry ice.
Tennyson’s copyrighted a line in one-word grunge titles too. Grotty follows on Tennyson’s superb Edinburg Fringe-winning school-noir Brute (which text accompanies that of Grotty) and its follow-up Runts. Brute amongst much else balances cruel humour and savagely-fought breakdown against a posh school’s moral blankness eerily reminiscent of St Trinian’s but for real.
There’s kinship with Polly Stenham in the school scenes of That Face and elsewhere. Tennyson in Brute, though, and again in Grotty is more specific, less theatrically savage.
Here Tennyson’s like a chrysalis emerging from the great cocoon of one-woman shows (like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag for instance). She still powers the narration like a blinking schoolgirl stumbling on wonders, gawking her face and teeth, rolling her eyes glaucously and speaking rapid-fire in a strangulated occasionally indecipherable voice. But of her energy and vision there’s no doubt.
It promises momentarily to be a one-woman show with plug-in parts. It’s not. There’s three principle supports. Rebekah Hinds as older girlfriend Toad and straight old friend Kate impressed in Orange Tree’s Humble Boy recently; her comic sharp persona is a gift for Toad ‘pure-bred, out at fourteen’. Underneath though the palpable systemic abuse cuts through. ’As I went to ballet school… they told me I would have got a breast reduction if I was going to continue with it. I was only thirteen so it… erm.. it fucked me up a bit.’ To Rigby’s fascinated sympathy Toad whips back ‘you’re looking at my boobs now’ and relishing it. You move from appalled sympathy – does the world of Billy Elliot do this to women? Yep. Then there’s a whole scena of flirting.
Grace Chilton’s dark damaged dominatrix Witch (Fern) alternates with an innocent Elliot unsure of her sexuality and who poses the very questions of intimacy and vulnerability crouched in Rigby waiting to leap out. It’s no accident Tennyson gives Elliot identical lines to Rigby’s opening ones, or that they’re both known by their surnames (normal lesbian usage) in contrast to nicknames and first names of others.
Chilton manages to juggle the contrast of vulnerabilities, enjoying the two parts whereas others have less opportunity. ‘I don’t understand why you keep coming’ Fern/Witch the famed tattoo artist tells Rigby, onto her need for attachment, and why. Her tattoo masterpiece is a ‘1950s nuclear family… strap-ons strapped to their faces.’ She refuses intimacy and plays with Rigby on a halter, suggesting she could keep her in a cage from Amazon. ‘You are so desperate and pathetic you would take any love you could get. Even if I end up really physically hurting you in some way.’
Later Witch writes an epitaph on the scene. ‘It’s only a matter of time before we all run into each other, how we overlap, cancel each other out, eat each other.’ And there’s history with Toad, who’d denounced Witch which makes her persona non gratified on the Dalston scene. Later still Rigby tells Dr Alexandra that one character gave up, married a man. ‘A lot of them give in’ she counters the doctor’s incredulity. Straight women are known as ‘breeders’.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh (seen at the Globe’s Twelfth Night) takes Toad’s serious ex Natty and Josie, two less sharply differentiated friends, and the exasperated Dr Alexandra who concludes late on ‘you were suicidal but not suicidal enough for treatment.’ By then we’ve leapt four years on and Dr Alexandra declares ‘I’m not a doctor I am just a warped memory of the assessment.’ But then that’s to get ahead of ourselves.
There’s a swag of glittering detail on the lesbian scene, as vibrant in East London as anywhere else, but Tennyson’s loving lyricism, like Genet’s, embraces the fascination: details like acclimatising to one character’s urinating on her feet when they’re in the shower. Or the real reason one character never exposes her breasts. We’re immersed in a world of chance counters and deliberate stalking, casual homophobia and gay turf wars where old lovers fight over younger women. There’s a laugh-out when Rigby just snorts coke and pours it over her head, exploding into manic verbal override.
There’s a structural misfire. After the four ‘Chapters’ with marvellous titles ‘Date With the Little Humping Dog’, or ‘Breeders Party and Fucking’ we’re jumped to three shorts. It’s like a play with three epilogues which potentially works.
Dr Alexandra, four years on, is certainly an epilogue of sorts, though hangs in some suspended limbo and it’s here Rigby’s exploring her psychic damage which her headlong hedonism hasn’t interrogated for a while, since that opening when Rigby admits she leans over balconies. Never mind, it’s upstaged by two more.
The first’s a memory of Rigby’s mum, Sarah, played by Clare Gallop. There have been minimal parts even at the NT Dorfman in July 2016, where Eva Polycarpu as a shrouded figure magnificently upstages the last five minutes of Alexei Kaye Campbell’s Sunset at the Villa Thalia. Gallop, impressively traumatised and as Sarah trying to put her affairs and love in order, isn’t given the amplitude to do this. Her ghost can’t breathe. To bring in Gallop, however consummate and making as much as she can here in mute suffering, is a bit cruel, and more than indulgent. Tennyson needs to make more of Gallop or incorporate her into reported narrative at which she excels.
The last takes up a scene with Elliot who’s been referred to in the Dr Alexandra scene, and here those fears about a seemingly straight young woman straying to explore her sexuality is cautiously warned off at first by a more experienced Rigby. But Elliot’s not so easily put off. We’re left with ambivalent affirmation.
Tennyson’s liveliness – of narrative and dialogue – the sharply-defined trio in particular more than justifies this as an ensemble piece. Tennyson’s still emerging, still trusting her own voice perhaps more than allowing scenarios and characters agency without her needing to tell everything as story. That can work too. Some verbal and to an extent structural clarity’s needed, just to amplify points Tennyson’s not nailed. These don’t have to be neat but her world needs a bit more completing. Particularly those frayed strands of breakdown. Running at 105 minutes Grotty might benefit from being a two-hour show.
But verbally – as ever with Tennyson – and dramatically as well as breaking new ground, this sings. Publicity, even Tennyson herself underline grotesque and some choose to be shocked. Perhaps London will catch up with Brighton where all this is perfectly routine, though never caught so wittily. Come to think of it, Tennyson’s due for another Brighton Festival appearance. This would beguile. Meanwhile, do see this at the Bunker and be illumined. It’s rare to see such brutal tenderness laugh itself to the lip of the balcony.