Thursday, September 4, 2014

'The Me Plays' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 3rd September 2014

The Me Plays is like watching a dam burst in slow motion.  Behind the fa├žade of jokey, "whey lads!" banterish masculinity lies a miserable torrent of self-loathing, regret and misery.  Over the course of two hour long monologues Andrew Maddock performs a ruthless self-autopsy, delving elbow deep into his psyche for our edification.  The result is a magnetic piece of theatre that doesn't so much grab your attention as nail your eyes to the stage.

The night is divided into two halves.  Junkie shows us modern man navigating the world of digital romance.  With a polyphonic beep and vibrational hiss an iPhone lights up; Andrew has a Tinder match!  She's a lovely looking girl named Tabitha and the two arrange a date the coming Friday night.  But unbeknownst to Tabitha she's in competition with an army of anonymous YouPorn girls for Andrew's affections.  This legion of gaping, wet orifices, plump collagen lips and understanding smiles glistens safely behind an iPad touchscreen, asking nothing of Andrew but self-pleasure and a handy sock.

How can Tabitha compete with that?  We see a man locked into a cycle of self-hatred, tugging at his gut, bemoaning his "twisted skin" and projecting his hatred onto the skinny bearded hipsters adorning posters in Top Man.  Andrew is hardly the Elephant Man, but he's no head-turner.  His curse is being utterly average: an average upbringing, average looks, average personality and average smarts - and, as he argues, what self-respecting woman would settle for average?

The second half, Hi Life, I Win, begins with our author lying on a hospital bed, trying to take his mind off some impending biopsy results.  He finds solace in the past, dialling back the clock to the mid 90s and reliving his rebellious teenage years.  What follows is a catalogue of 1990s references familiar to anyone who's about 30.  With a smile on his face he recalls how he used to be a pain in the arse to his teachers.

As he guides us through the past we touch upon his visit to a Christian camp for 'difficult' children, where he meets a tanned, guitar-wielding cool Christian named Arizona Dan. .  These anarchic teenage years, with Dr Dre as role model and "smoke weed every day" as a motto are contrasted with his current situation; the days that felt like they'd never end versus the potential numbered days of a negative prognosis.

I don't know anything about Andrew Maddock other than what I've seen on stage last night.  Given the naked emotion on stage I figure there's two possibilities.  Either he's a stupendously great actor; able to conjure up these two characters, both of whom bristle with nuance and dead-on physical presence, or these are two slightly fictionalised versions of himself.

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On one hand it seems a touch unlikely that he could do a performance this raw without drawing from personal experience. But considering he's performing a one-man show it seems unlikely that he's as crippled by self-doubt and shame as his characters.  Part of what makes Maddock's material so compelling is that everyone in the audience is able to spot the less attractive, less confident parts of themselves in these monologues.  You cringe in recognition as he expertly outlines some dark, private part of the human condition that you'd prefer to be kept behind closed curtains; the dark nights of the soul boldly thrown into the spotlight.

I'm aware that I'm making this all sound a bit grim, but aside from all the incisive confessions The Me Plays is also really, really damn funny.  The torrent of memories and regrets is layered with oodles of witty asides and observations as pinpoint accurate as a laser-guided missile.  Maddock's best weapon is a tonal pendulum constantly swinging between humour and pathos.  So after a particularly gruelling confession we get a gag that acts as a pressure valve, released a relieved gale of laughter from the audience.  Conversely we can be caught mid-laugh by a tiny, diamond-hard nugget of depression, a personal observation so cutting that your guffaw is halted mid-larynx.

Maddock's rapid-fire delivery lands somewhere between stand-up comedy, poetry and rapping - an neverending flow of tightly enunciated, precise rhymes.  This firmly defines the monologues as a performance, which gives us a much needed emotional buffer in the middle of this raw confessional.  Anyway, leaving aside the material for a moment, simply delivering two lengthy, fast-paced monologue with nary a stammer nor hesitation is a high-wire act worthy of praise, not to mention the physical performing going on throughout.  

You can probably tell by now that I was seriously impressed with this. The entire two hours I was completely wrapped up in what's going on on stage to the exclusion of all else in the world. For Maddock to put himself on a mostly empty stage and hope to command our attention with something that's not quite stand-up, not quite theatre and not quite poetry is a brave but ultimately successful move.  The Me Plays is sometimes painful, sometimes genuinely hilarious but always - always - fascinating. 

The Me Plays is at The Old Red Lion, Tues-Sat 7.30pm, matinees Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm until 20th September.  Tickets here.

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