Friday, May 4, 2018

Review: 'Grotty' at The Bunker, 3rd May 2018

Grotty reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I don't know much about the London lesbian scene, but judging by Grotty it's a psychosexual pressure cooker crammed full of cynical, predatory weirdos. Written by and starring Izzy Tennyson, this semi-autobiographical story follows Rigby, an awkward 22-year-old scene newbie doing her best to navigate a tangled web of bitchery and broken hearts.

Rigby spends most of the play bouncing like a pinball between two women's beds; Toad (Rebekah Hind) is maternally overpowering while Witch (Grace Chilton) is into pretty much everything dark and depraved, though appears to mostly get her kicks from causing shame and embarrassment in her partners. Witch and Toad were also once engaged, so uh, that'd be awkward if they found out they now share Rigby.

But the white-hot core of Grotty is Rigby: one of the most fascinating characters I've seen in a very long time. Hunch-backed, twitchy, tongue pressed awkwardly into her lower lip, clad in charity shop sportswear - she behaves like someone who spent her childhood in a Harry Harlow isolation box. Her dialogue is a rat-a-tat stream-of-consciousness, winding its way through suicidal self-loathing, incisive observations and amphetamine fuelled paranoia.

Rigby is a grotesque in the nicest possible way, reminding me of some of the darker work of Peter Cook or maybe The League of Gentlemen. Despite her being a caricature amidst a cast of (relatively) realistic characters, the character brims over with pathos, empathy and wit. The other women in the play are drawn to her malleable vulnerability, seeing her as a woman-shaped-flesh-puppet they can mould to their sexual specifications and discard when things get boring. It leaves her unfulfilled and confused - perhaps most touchingly when she asks the hard-edged lesdom fanatic Witch for a simple hug.

Rigby's viewpoint (and I have to assume Tennyson's too) of London's lesbian scene isn't particularly charitable. These takedowns comprise the funniest moments in the play, from bemoaning the omnipresent R&B soundtrack, to the fact that lesbian nights tend to be midweek ("Who goes out on a Wednesday?!"), to the preponderance of bicurious Goldsmiths graduates in pixie haircuts called Annabelle who are there to vicariously play at being different rather than find a shag.

It's a breath of fresh air to see a show about lesbians that's so aggressively deromanticised. A lot of right-on shows that feature lesbian relationships (even ones written by women) have the vague odour of the male gaze about then - with a tacit understanding that there's something intrinsically erotic about lesbians. Grotty comprehensively dispels that, feeling custom-designed to deliver a warts and all insight into the dull sexual drudgery that really goes on behind closed doors.

The show's insights are uniformly excellent, but sadly it comes a little unstuck narratively. This is mainly down to the core narrative concluding, but the play continuing on with an inessential 15-minute epilogue. This marks a tonal shift that does the play no favours: the jokes dry up, the pace slows down and we just don't learn much new about the characters. It's a bit of a structural headscratcher - as if there's a lack of confidence that the previous 70 minutes or so hadn't communicated its message well enough (it did).

Anyhows, that doesn't get in the way of Grotty's obvious qualities. It's handsomely directed, staged, soundtracked and contains a bevvy of great performances (I love the way Grace Chilton delivers the dead-eyed nonchalant stare of the truly committed pervert). But it's Izzy Tennyson's night and while Grotty is not without its flaws, it's a great performative and literary showcase for a serious theatrical talent.

Grotty is at The Bunker until 26 May. Tickets here.

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