It was about half-way through Spoonface Steinberg at the Jermyn Street a couple of years ago that I realised it. There was nothing wrong with the production, it was a very fine production by the very very fine Max Barton. There was nothing wrong with the performance by Lucy Hollis, either. So it must have been me. It must have been that I really really hate Lee Hall. And because I’ve longsince realised that I really hate Lee Hall, and because Lee Hall wrote a play called I Luv You Jimmy Spud (how can you NOT hate a man who wrote a play called that?) which sounds a bit like I Heart Catherine Pistachio, and because Lee Mattinson is also from the north (I know, I know, so am I) and is also a man called Lee, for all of those reasons, however spurious and invalid, I wasn’t looking forward to this show very much. I don’t know what I expected. Just not very much.
And I’m really, really sorry. Because this is brilliant. And it is a bit like Lee Hall actually, only if Lee Hall had his gruesome sentimental heart scooped out with an ice-cream scoop and replaced with something thick and festering. Lee Hall gone rotten from the inside but determined to show you his very best heart-warming cabaret hour all the same. Lee Hall who’s had his brain temporarily piloted by a miniaturised, cackling Philip Ridley. It’s that kind of brilliant.
Presented by Encounter, Jen Malarkey’s company dedicated to the mixing of dance and new writing in a non-shit way, I Heart is an hour long coming-of age story in an age of neglect and cruelty. Delivered by Nick Blakeley and Carl Harrison in identical blue dresses and blonde wigs, looking for all the world like those monstrous children in Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’ video, it’s the story of an unwanted child ricocheting through a life of grotesque abuse. Sexual violence, animal murder, bestiality and incest, all play a part in Catherine’s degradation. Her name is taken away from her. Her horse is strung up a tree and beaten to death. I don’t really remember what happened to her favourite dog in the end, but I remember it pushed me close to tears.
Mattinson’s script is relentless and uncompromising, but its real genius is tonal. As horrendous as Catherine’s parents become, their language and delivery rarely frames them as any more monstrous than the Wormwoods’ of Matilda (which is still, of course, pretty monstrous). There’s an innocence that threads beneath the barbarism like sickly perfume in an abattoir. It just makes things worse. And unlike Matilda, Catherine cannot offer a fixed point of naïve resistence – her parents actions shape her, the scars show through.
Blakeley and Harrison slip between characters, or split characters down the middle, at one stage representing the two conflicting instincts of Catherine’s personality – one innocent and forgiving, the other vengefully twisted. They throw themselves into spasmodic dance routines choreographed by Simone Coxall that spill over a catchy mid-90’s playlist. Malarkey’s direction leans heavily on Mattinson’s playfulness, as if blissfully unaware of the appalling acts of cruelty that are so casually described.
Crushing sentimentality through a meat-grinder and spewing it over crusty, vicious suburbia, I Heart Catherine Pistachio hits out of nowhere and hits hard. It’s a comic atrocity determined to throw its audience wildly off kilter, and it succeeds with harrowing aplomb. And not a dew-eyed ballet dancer in sight.