“Superheroes all need a reason to put on a cape,” Captain Amazing tells us, his own red mantle falling loosely from his shoulders. We’re familiar by now with the origin stories of Superman, Spiderman, Batman and the like: scores to be settled, rights to be wronged, destinies to be fulfilled. Noble beginnings fit for heroic deeds.
But what if you never wanted to be a superhero in the first place? The father at the fiercely-beating heart of Alistair McDowall’s one man show is one such reluctant crusader, an ordinary bloke suddenly required to find superhuman emotional strength. Thanks to the stunts of Fathers 4 Justice, the image of dad as superhero is not a new one, but McDowall offers it fresh meaning. Here, the invoking of superpowers is not glib, clichéd or emptily symbolic, but loaded with a sort of honesty and truth – the child-like kind of truth that might be built on a scaffold of fantasy, but is real nonetheless.
Captain Amazing – or Mark, when he’s not soaring through the skies protecting mankind – is not exactly typical superhero material. He works in B&Q and lives a minimal existence in his plain, sparsely furnished home. He’s never thought of decorating. The unexpected arrival of a daughter into his life suddenly brings with it difficult questions, bedtime stories and a crime-fighting alter-ego fit to protect his little girl.
McDowall’s writing soars alongside its protagonist, effortlessly leaping from fantasy to reality, hilarious pastiche to heart-puncturing emotional intensity, paired with an equally effortless performance. His monologue is delivered with astonishing dexterity by Mark Weinman, who swiftly morphs to inhabit everyone from a petulant Batman (a “billionaire with a leather fetish”, according to Captain Amazing) to Mark’s sweetly curious young daughter Emily. The switch can flick from comedy to poignancy in a split second.
While the search for inner strength lies at its core, the piece is as much a discovery of imagination as it is of courage. In Captain Amazing, teased out of him by his daughter’s insistence on a superhero story, Mark finally finds the power of storytelling that has eluded him through a life of awkward inarticulacy. McDowall too has given his imagination free reign, taking a childish glee in writing scenes that amusingly straddle superhero fantasy and everyday banality. An estate agent gives Captain Amazing a tour of a vacated super-villain’s lair; Captain Amazing and Superman chew the fat while flying above the clouds.
What makes this sweet tale linger, however, is its emotional weight. Like any superhero worth their salt, Captain Amazing delivers quite a punch – a wounding ‘kapow’ right to the guts. The true challenge, McDowall suggests, lies not in defeating villains or learning how to fly, but in getting up and getting on with it every day, and in remaining strong for those you love even when you might not be able to protect them. Because in real life, being a hero is never as simple as putting on a cape.