Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: 'Really Want To Hurt Me' at the Soho Theatre, 13th December 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Really Want To Hurt Me walks a well-worn path. The "write what you know" maxim, in combination with young queer men and women escaping their shitty towns for cosmopolitan London, inevitably results in a lot of theatre about just that. These are performances about growing up LGTBQ in bigoted towns that can't ever understand; being tortured emotionally and physically by lunk-headed brutes; the paranoia that comes with knowing you're different; and finding an escape through art.

The above is writer/director Ben SantaMaria's Really Want To Hurt Me in a nutshell. Performed by Ryan Price, the show is a semi-autobiographical monologue about what it's like to grow up gay in 1980s Devon. It doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs.

Told in a confessional, semi-jokey style, we follow our hero from his early schooldays, where a teacher takes him aside and tells him to stop playing with the girls and kick a football - or people might think he's 'strange'. As he progresses through adolescence this feeling of alienation from his peers grows and grows: his classmates bully him, his overbearing father is openly disappointed in him, and his only solace is new wave pop music. It's a foregone conclusion that the moment he hears The Smiths he is smitten.

SantaMaria quickly proves a dab hand at vivid imagery. There's a particularly fantastic scene that comes just after the protagonist has heard Meat is Murder and is instantly converted to vegetarianism. At the family dinner table he's presented with a plate of meat and with Morrissey's lyrics about "the unholy stench of murder" ringing in his ears, promptly vomits all over it. What follows is described with an almost lascivious grossness - a plate overflowing with vomit, a father sweeping the tablecloth away, a full gravy boat flying through the air - feeling like a snapshot of Mike Leighish domestic misery.

But it's in the play's exploration of culturally induced self-loathing that it's most interesting - our hero not even wanting to say the word "gay", let alone admit that he might be it. From a modern perspective, it's easy to forget the sheer lack of information available to a teenager worried that he's gay. He has no-one to talk to (he comes out to his 'girlfriend', who promptly vows to convert him), nothing to read except Freud and the mid-1980s media is caught up in the HIV/AIDS panic. When the only references you have for being gay are abuse, hatred and mockery, it's no wonder that Boy George, Annie Lennox and Morrissey loom so large in the mind.

This is good stuff, but while I appreciated Really Want To Hurt Me, I never got emotionally involved. I think this is because there's this thin patina of jokey irony ladled over the whole thing which erodes the sincerity that a story like this needs. The writing tends to undercut moments of emotion with jokes or witty asides to the audience, which results in a tonal flatness. Even though this is a confessional piece that touches on suicide, the show never properly grapples with the misery throbbing away at the core of this story.

Plus, harsh as it is to say about someone's semi-autobiographical experience, the play could really use a few more things happening in it. The plot trundles along without any shocks or surprises as just a parade of small-scale domestic miseries, and every other person mentioned is sketched very thinly. This means we focus on our hero - but though I feel bad for his pain - there's nothing dramatically unique about it.

It's a nicely written, well-performed bit of writing. But Really Want To Hurt Me is far from essential.

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