Developed as part of Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment new work initiative, Adam Peck’s autobiographical one-man show is a short but bitter-sweet reflection on his experiences growing up as an only child in 1980s Leeds. At the beginning he explains that, in writing it, he’s tried to check with everyone mentioned that they were happy for him to use their real name and that because some weren’t what he’ll tell us is as ‘close to the truth’ as he can get.
The result is a candid, warm and, of course, very personal piece of writing: self-deprecating, funny, unsentimental – and replete with the pin-sharp phrasing and attention to detail that’s graced Peck’s previous scripts, most notably last year’s Bonnie and Clyde for Fairground.
Performing in the stripped-back Old Vic Studio, with the audience on individual wooden chairs scattered across the black box’s bare floor, Peck wanders amongst us, from one area to another. In each is a vacant chair, each of which in turn comes to represent a different character – his mum and dad, his granddad, his gramps, his imaginary brother, his imaginary friend, the first girl he kisses etc – and each of which locates a different fragment in the texture of the overall story. It’s a simple and elegant piece of staging which enables him to cut back and forth between episodes, layering them into a narrative which unfolds with the logic of associative memory and creating juxtapositions that can be either telling or comic.
It’s the mix of sometimes moving, sometimes idiosyncratic anecdotes, though, which really makes this show: the wobbly front gate installed by his dad to stop the family dog escaping, which Peck comes to see as a sign of his parents’ over-protectiveness and a barrier to his own freedom; a stay in hospital when he talks to a girl in the opposite bed who turns out to have leukaemia and who ‘disappears’ one day without his realising why; a letter to his mum to ask her what he should do when a girl wants to snog him; a football match with other kids he realises probably aren’t his friends, just people who happen to live near him; his imaginary friend turning out to be an undertaker.
On the face of it, perhaps, this is the stuff of a myriad childhood memoirs but each anecdote is anchored in deeper themes – friendship, loneliness, love, death – and, told with disarming understatement, they build into both a rounded portrait of Peck’s own coming of age in a particular time and place and the universal experience of trying to discover an identity amidst the chaos of growing up.
What clinches it, though, is Peck’s open and ingenuous delivery. There’s not a hint of ‘side’ about it – no ‘it’s grim up north’ or ‘it’s grim being an only child’ self-pity. Nor is it a ‘triumph over adversity’ yarn: as Peck makes clear the repercussions of his upbringing continue to haunt his friendships and relationships to this day. In fact, Only is a fresh andoriginal take on autobiography and, more broadly, an exploration of how personal stories – with all their apparent random and unconnected details – are, when it comes down to it, the essence both of that thing we call ‘real life’ and of some of the most effective and engaging theatre.