Going out on the lash. For a birthday, perhaps, or on the pull, or maybe to punctuate a week that would otherwise smear into a job that grinds you under its heel or an endless round of XBOX, Jeremy Kyle and wanking. Luke Barnes’ first play follows two of the young and the doomed on a night out where they drink to excess and butt up hard against their inherited inability to escape. It’s an invigorating debut, powered by Barnes’ wicked grasp of the imperfectly upturned phrase, and though it’s not always insightful, its pertinence and honesty make it near-essential viewing.
Joe and Kirsty play tag-team with their respective stories, two nights out with friends that slop through the peaks and troughs of drunken exhilaration and desperation and smash briefly together. Joe is out to cheer up a friend returned from Iraq, Kirsty arrives in town in the back of a cheap rented limo. Both of them want something more, want to make something, but in the meantime they are caught in a cycle of Fosters-fuelled evenings in shit clubs and shit club-fuelled fumblings behind the bins at KFC.
Barnes’ handles the dual-narratives with skill, the two stumbling paths are traced with Joycean wit, their points of intersection appreciable only in retrospect. The overlapping structure also allows for a brutal contrast of gender roles and expectations: Joe and Kirsty are locked in the same dance, but they are expected to follow very different steps, Joe is caught in a struggle to embody the ur-lad despite his latent sensitivity, while Kirsty is expected to alternately flaunt and conceal her sexuality in a sort of flickering moral peepshow. Barnes’ is not afraid to flag up the inequality in their situations, in their possibilities. Even blasted beyond cognition, Joe has privileges that are denied to Kirsty, he has less to fear if not less to lose.
Their world is similarly bleak and fractured. The chapel which gives the eponymous street its name has been turned into a Lloyds Bar, there are no jobs that don’t seem an affront to human dignity and parents are mired in lechery or neglect.
Played against the grim environment is the innate dignity of Barnes’ characters, and the moments in which their abortive encounter takes on the garments of a very recognisable contemporary romance. Chapel Street considers the question of how we meet each other, how we hook up, of couplings born out of bottles of furtively purchased vodka, bad music played too loud and woozy fingerings in dank surroundings.
Cary Crankson is deeply convincing as Joe, finding those chips in his laddishness that mark him out as vulnerable and worthwhile. Barnes’ script is too warm and too angry to be accused of culture-slumming, and Crankson hits the perfect pitch of whining and righteousness. Ria Zmitrowicz is even better, her Kirsty is like a person turned inside out, neuroses pulsing through her muscles and gleaming on her skin.
Director Cheryl Gallacher lets the performances speak for themselves, and though the use of props occasionally feels strained, her sense of timing plays Barnes’ script for its effortless observational humour. Neither Barnes nor Gallacher is interested in directionless anger, but while the question of why we don’t fix ourselves remains front and centre, we are never allowed to forget that their society has been ransacked, that their generation is falling between the floorboards. An inevitability hangs over everything, like a CLOSED sign picked out in merciless neon; as Joe reflects, ‘You can’t change the tracks.’