Three-time award winner at Brighton Fringe in 2016, Groomed is a beautifully crafted piece of theatrical storytelling. Writer/performer Patrick Sandford shares the devastatingly personal story of his betrayal and abuse by school teacher – the serial offender Mr. David Moorby. He interweaves this with other tales, most forcibly those of Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who stayed at his post for 29 years after World War II had ended, unaware that peace had been declared, and Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. Onoda and Sax’s tales seem to underline two of Sandford’s messages – that we can sometimes guard ourselves unnecessarily from perceived threat, and – more obliquely perhaps – that misfortune of many kinds does not prevent (or indeed can transmute into) creativity.
The storytelling is accompanied and punctuated by Laurence Astill’s saxophone – music composed by Simon Slater – a neat tie-in to the narrative. The show is simply staged and Directed by Nancy Meckler with a lightness of touch.
Sandford tells his and the linked stories with a fluid mix of narrative and embodiment. Voicing both abuser and abused brings a particular poignancy to his descriptions of events. The writing holds a delicate balance between powerful frankness and a descriptive lyricism, and is at times exquisite. In addition to the three narratives, he weaves in other classical elements, for example of Oedipus blinding himself out of shame.
Sandford’s choice of themes and theatrical style contains a delightful symmetry. At one point he describes himself as having been ‘armoured‘ by such language and stories. It feels as if this armour is also the very means by which he, finally, escapes.
Sandford draws parallels between his own story and those of Sax and Onoda. Onoda in particular seems to represent the part of Sandford who has been guarded for so long, perhaps, as he asks himself, unnecessarily. The tagline for Groomed suggests that it is a three-part narrative. In fact, Sandford’s story is, rightly, predominant and the supporting acts could have been given a little less of the limelight without losing their message.
Sandford is a fine storyteller. He moves smoothly in and out of (and, powerfully, at times between) characters. He holds the conflicting emotions of the piece with skill, sometimes explosive, other times controlled. Yet it is perhaps the moments when Sandford seems less in ‘performer’ mode that are the most poignant. There are flashes here not simply of Sandford playing himself at a younger age, but of the boy inside. And whilst he rails at being shadowed by his younger, damaged, self, Sandford playing theatre, and sharing his excitable joy in story and language offer a foil for the darkness of the core story.
The show is simply staged – a table with simple props, that also serves as classroom desk; a small paper theatre, that represents the young Sandford’s escape into the world of make believe, and returns later in the piece in a gorgeous theatrical flourish. It is directed by Nancy Meckler with a lightness of touch that keeps the focus squarely where it needs to be. Slater’s score is playful and arresting; Astill’s playing subtle and skilful. Occasionally the music distracted where it might perhaps have better underscored. Overall though, this is a show of high production values, where any rawness in tone or transition feels right.
Groomed is a brave and unusual piece, not simply because it tackles a difficult subject head on, but also because its medium is part of its message. Its transformative power is that of a man who has finally found a voice for his pain and rage, somehow transfigured into art, and this lyrical expression of who he is.
The ‘showing’ of this devastating and layered story is so powerful that some of the more ‘telling’ proclamations towards the end felt not needed (and perhaps, for its pure strength as theatre, better kept for the Q&A that follows the show).
Groomed is not afraid to explore areas of grey rather than the black and white of victim and perpetrator, not least when Sandford is rejected by Moorby, perhaps for a younger model, and asks himself ‘could it be possible that I loved what I hated?’ This is an important production, cleverly conceived, beautifully and simply designed and diected, and performed with both skill and passion.
I especially loved the interplay of head and heart in the writing, and watching Sandford’s creative joy (or should I say boy?) coming out to play alongside his anger. The audience had a hushed stillness, and that long holding of breath before the exhalation and applause that suggests they have taken a lot on board.
Groomed was only on for one night in Brighton Fringe this year, so it is with an apology that I say it was and is a Must See show. However, it is playing at the Soho Theatre in London and the Theatre Royal Plymouth in June and July, so you may be able to catch it there.