James is a little bit… odd: he’s a train station announcer who’s never been on a train; he’s in a relationship with the boxing-obsessed ‘man-mum’ of a former schoolfriend; and he’s a 33-year-old man locked in a feud with an 11-year-old swimming prodigy called Veronica. But Idiot Child’s tender, hilarious and off-the-wall show isn’t just about an awkward misfit; it’s an astute observation of loneliness, failure and the pain of self-awareness.
Writers Anna Harpin and Jimmy Whiteaker (in whose charming performance the major portion of this piece’s irresistibility lies) create a peculiar world that initially appears to be almost self-consciously quirky, but which gradually takes on a darker hue as James’s disappointments in life stack up.
The narrative – in which James slips between describing his day-to-day work at the railway station, the course of his romance with Sue and his motivation for entering the Over-10s Swimming Gala – explores the human need for intimacy, and the problems of navigating the unspoken rules of society. James may be uniquely odd but his yearnings are intrinsic to us all, attuned to that part of everyone – however deeply buried – that’s experienced hurt, humiliation or despair.
Chris Gylee’s playful set – which includes a swimming pool made of Liquorice Allsorts – references the childish aspects of James’s personality, the petulance and the pettiness, so making his emotionally mature comprehension and acceptance of Sue’s limitations all the more poignant. The scene where James moves through boxing moves – he and Sue bonded over a video of The Rumble in The Jungle – interspersed with desperate embraces, is particularly moving.
But although I Could’ve Been Better hints at a deeper sadness, it is primarily very, very funny, and Whiteaker’s performance is superb (the interactions with the audience are sweet and inclusive; it’s a rare show that makes me wish I’d been picked out of the crowd). Some aspects are less successful – the pace sags in places, and the paper aeroplane episode is a whimsy too far, with little relevance beyond its interactive impetus – and perhaps it suffers slightly from immersing us too persuasively in its peculiarly unique world view but overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable show.