Monday, May 23, 2016

'Squirm' at the Bread and Roses, 21st May 2016

It’s a balmy Saturday night in London, the perfect time for barbecues and tossing back cold n' cheap beer. Instead I’m trapped in a bathroom with a suicidal paedophile as he pukes his guts out. This is Squirm, a brief n’ breezy one hander written by Serafina Cusack starring Nathaniel Fairnington.

In an hour long fit of introspection, the 25 year old Rory tells us how he fell for a fifteen year old girl. What follows is a seamy cocktail of self justification (“She was so mature for her age!”) and gross self loathing. Rory takes us through his three year relationship with the teenager, their eventual breakup leaving Rory generally miserable. But he's specifically miserable this morning - riddled with guilt and paranoia after having lured a drunken 14 year old back to his flat and had his way with her.

The contradiction between knowing you’re doing wrong and just not caring provides Squirm’s dramatic gristle. Rory has spent years in denial, silently telling himself that his last teenage squeeze was some kind of true love affair, perhaps thinking of that notorious Woody Allen quote: “the heart wants what it wants”. Now, after waking up next to the skinny, immature body of someone who swore that they’re turning fifteen really really soon, the reality of his actions catches up to him. The slow realisation dawns: "oh my god, I'm a paedo!".

Of course, this is obvious to everyone but him. In creepily detailed recollections he fetishises teenager's sexual awkwardness, innocence and underdeveloped bodies, in one memorable portion practically drooling as he looks down at the child sleeping in his bed and delights that she’s “all mine!”.

In the popular imagination the paedophile is a creepy old man: a hunchback in a dirty raincoat peering at the kids through thick, smudged glasses. This quintessential pervert can that can be quickly identified and shunned, a very visible monster. Rory doesn't fit this stereotype, he's handsome, physically fit and charming, with a hint of boyishness to him even in his mid 20s. 

I’ve spent a decent portion of my working life working with sex offenders of all stripes, and while lots of them are obviously creepy motherfuckers, there’s a lot of Rorys out there. These are predatory men who skirt the edges of social acceptance, able to convince themselves (and often others) that their sexual attraction to children doesn't cause anyone any harm and anyway, it's a small minded society that has the real problem. Inevitably that train of thought reaches the end of the line and, like Rory, these people must face the consequences of their actions and who they are.

Throughout this blistering self-excoriation, the word ‘squirm’ is repeated like a mantra. Rory is constantly squirming with disgust, his heart squirms in his chest and we meet him physically squirming in a bathtub of tepid water at the show’s start. It becomes quickly apparent that Appetite Theatre, who explain that their strength is dealing with “uncomfortable subjects”, wants us in the audience to squirm in our seats.

But Squirm didn’t get me squirming. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an effective bit of writing (I detected the influence of Chuck Palahnuik), doling out juicy revelations, accurately capturing the blinders of masculine lust and with a fantastic ear for descriptive language. Simiarly, Nathaniel Fairnington proves to be a versatile performer, initially defining Rory as an average guy in his twenties before exposing his curdled soul (he having a nice line in mimicry. 

The crux is, for all that's interesting in Squirm it’s difficult to get past that Rory just isn't particularly compelling: an hour in his company is about thirty minutes too long. He’s just about three dimensional but after about halfway through I was wishing he’d just get on with killing himself so we could skip the repetitive cycle of "woe is me! *pukes in toilet*". Ultimately, peeking into the mind of a somewhat repetent paedophile is kind of interesting, but not that interesting.

Squirm is far from the worst thing I’ve seen lately, but it’s far from the best. I respect a company and production that strikes out into uncomfortable territory, but this is a piece that could use a a refit and a rejiggle. For example, it'd screw with the dramatic purity of the monologue, but I found myself wanting to hear the Rory's victim's side of the story. 

The seeds of something good are here, but the end product, like it’s paedo subject, is a little off.


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