Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: 'Hear Me Howl' at the Old Red Lion, 25th September 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

There are few things more terrifying than the crushing weight of conformity. My personal hell would be trudging home from a mindless job to an identikit home on an identikit street, eating bland food and staring blearily eyed at a television as reality TV rises up around my eyeballs and slowly but inexorably kneads my brain into a soft, grey mush.

This quicksand can envelop even the most dynamic, interesting and cool people and it's what Jess (Alice Pitt-Carter), the lead character feels tickling her ankles throughout writer Lydia Rynne's excellent one-woman show Hear Me Howl.

She's a 29-year-old office worker living in London with a Tim-nice-but-dim boyfriend and a demeaning job as a PA. On paper, she's got it made: a steady source of income; a long-term partner; and a relatively secure apartment. On trips to visit her boyfriend's family winking  and handsy uncles press her on when the pair will finally tie the knot, which causes bile to rise in her throat.

The future solidifying into something ghastly makes her suddenly aware of her situation - as if she's a frog who has just realised the water around her is coming to the boil. Just as she's concluding things need to change, fate lobs a baby-shaped hand grenade into her life. Jess is pregnant, and now must grapple with whether to keep this baby. 

And, In the midst of this meltdown, the abrasive don't-give-a-fuck sounds of punk rock slice through the Gordian knot of her life.

The obvious pitfall that Hear Me Howl faces is that the troubles of a British middle-class white woman don't amount to a hill of beans these days. Fortunately, Rynne tackles this head-on, convincingly weaving Jess' guilt at knowing that there are people in far more difficult situations than her in the world into part of the psychic storm she's facing.

This storm gradually intensifies as the reality of her situation sets in - facing fears about the stigma she'll suffer from her friends and family after getting an abortion, the guilt of wondering what kind of life this potential human might have had, the fear that she might become infertile and bitterly regret passing up her one chance, the notion that maybe a child will transform her life and bring her happiness. 

All this is swirling around in her head - but then she discovers punk (well, post-punk but let's not split hairs). Though Jess has no musical experience she ends up as the drummer of a band called Finrot and suddenly realises what's been missing in her life all these years. The tangle of suppressed anger, indignation and humiliation that her bourgeois existence expected her to bear explodes out of her out in a clattering, chaotic boom of cymbals and drums.

In a way, this abandonment of conformity and embracing a subculture makes Hear Me Howl a kind of estrogen-fuelled reworking of Fight Club, with Jess finally comprehending her social bondage and screaming "up yours!".

With its use of percussion to communicate frustration and a set that looks like a gig is going to begin immediately after the play concludes, Hear Me Howl successfully captures angry punk liberation: the blissful liberation of realising you don't actually have to give a fuck, that perhaps what every advertisement paints as paradise is your nightmare - and that you've just discovered the escape hatch.

Pitt-Carter's performance is believably frayed but charismatic, constantly engaging with individual members of the audience to draw them into her story, and Rynne's writing is full of poetic yet unpretentious literary flourishes. Plus, the show really knows its punk (possibly due to Fay Milton, drummer of Savages credited as Music Consultant).. My kinda play - check it out!

Hear Me Howl is at the Old Red Lion until 29th September. Tickets here.

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