Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: 'Isaac Came Home From The Mountain' at Theatre503, 14th May 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

It turns out that living through a 'crisis of masculinity' isn't much fun. A century of feminism and civil rights campaigning has left straight white men paranoid that their hitherto unassailable place at the top of the social pecking order is being eroded. Riddled with paranoia they've turned in droves to reassuring caricatures of manhood - see the pussy-grabbin', nuclear-dicked leader of the free world.

Traditional masculine traits like physical strength, propensity to violence and rugged individualism are being consigned to the scrapyard of history. It's among this tangled heap of rusted machinery and corrugated iron that we find the characters of Phil Ormrod's Isaac Came Home From The Mountain.

Set in a northern post-industrial town, we follow teenage boy Bobby (Charles Furness), spinning aimlessly through a world that doesn't have a place for him. His estranged cop dad, John (Guy Porritt) tells him he's got no skills or experience and is in danger of getting left behind by the world, handing him a cold McDonalds hamburger and pleading with him to get a job.

Bobby does precisely that, ending up at a scrapyard run by Mike Scofield (Ian Burfield) and his son Chris (Kenny Fullwood). Mike is almost a caricature of old-fashioned masculinity, his beard, sturdy physique and booming voice adding up a man you can imagine charging off a Viking long-boat, screaming and brandishing an axe at some terrified monks. He's apparently some kind of low-level criminal (or at least moderately shady) and his employment of Bobby scares John, who sees his son falling in with a disreputable crowd.

What follows is a two-layered paternal battle. On one front Mike and Bobby are vying to be Bobby's father figure, on the other Bobby and Chris are struggling to win the approval of Mike. Everyone seems to recognise Bobby as a person with potential, each eager to impress their own philosophies upon him before his personality solidifies. 

Most successful is Mike who, in the play's best scene, takes him into the mountains and waxes lyrical on his British heritage, explaining that his ancestors walked this landscape and he is intrinsically connected to it (slightly undercut by Bobby pointing out that his parents moved here from Lincoln, but the point still stands). Mike massages Bobby's lack of purpose by putting a shotgun in his hands and instructing him to blow away a rabbit, allowing him to understand his masculinity by handing him a physical manifestation of his potential.

What follows are the horrible consequences of someone being filled full of half-baked notions about masculine identity and a burning desire to impress someone. It's the kind of story you see periodically echoed on the news as yet another young man picks up a semi-automatic rifle and walks into a mall or perhaps rents a van and drives into a group of pedestrians. What better way to instantly define a bruised masculinity than through senseless, bloody violence?

Isaac Came Home From The Mountain doesn't screw around when it comes to communicating this stuff. The play is fat-free at just over an hour long and has a strong sense of purpose and momentum. Director Carla Kingham and the cast also do an admirable job of making the physical elements of the play land with a thump - as the young men wrestle one another to establish their dominance in the social hierarchy you can practically imagine David Attenborough on narration.

An obvious highlight is Ian Burfield's Mike, whose rumbling anger rattles the audience's bones and instantly physically dominates the space. He's the perfectly pitched counterpart to the more introspective performance of Guy Porritt - and it's instantly obvious why a young man like Bobby would gravitate and seek to emulate him. Charles Furness as Bobby is also fantastic,  playing up his sharply defined features, gangly teenage body language and insouciant gaze. He nails the character's transformation: beginning the play physically loose and lanky, before straightening up and gaining an intimidating sense of purpose.

Ormrod's weaving together of class and gender is careful and precise, and though I don't know much about him I assume these are observations borne of personal experience. But one element that initially seems absent from the play is an explicitly political dimension. We can assume that the characters' situations arise from Thatcher's deindustrialisation of the North, with the resulting unemployment and dent in masculine purpose in the area, which has had long-simmering consequences in the rise of the far-right and its deification of masculinity (the briefest glimmer of this comes through in some off-stage character's names).

The obvious justification for this absence is that these simply aren't characters who are going to naturally segue into chatting about their socioeconomic circumstances, but all the same, there's a bit of a void behind their actions that could be alluded to a little more strongly. That's about it for criticism though, well other than the rather flea-bitten and stiff stuffed rabbit that drew a couple of giggles from the audience.

Isaac Came Home From The Mountain is a concise and moving examination of modern masculinity and how badly it can go wrong. It's witty, intelligent, well-performed and Eleanor Bull's staging is a delight. Ormrod asks a lot of questions, none of which have easy answers. Still, there's a simmering, indignant frustration that runs right through the play like the words through a stick of rock - it's got a palpable life that so many other productions lack.

Isaac Came Home From The Mountain is at Theatre503 until 2nd June. Tickets here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “Review: 'Isaac Came Home From The Mountain' at Theatre503, 14th May 2018”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights