The cardinal rule of both reviewing and relationships is kind of the same: take them (a play, a partner) for what they are, not what you wish they were. It can be hard, in relationships—or rather, easy to be blinded by your hopes for what could be until you can’t see what is. And it can be hard for reviewers. For example, I have no idea what Matthew Lyon’s Broken, billed as a spoken-word play and written in verse, really is.
Is it a parody of shallow lovers and pop culture notions of love and gender roles? Is it a fond but rueful tragicomic love story? Is it a dark story of a duo too self-involved to understand why they keep sabotaging their changes at love?
O, narrow-minded critic, seeking ever to contain and codify! Can it not be all of this and more? Cannot the bounds of this little pub theatre contain multitudes?
Well, sure. But each of these concepts undermines the others, leaving a whole that is somehow simultaneously bloated and thin. Lyon’s two-hander (Lyon is “Boy” and Edie Newman is “Girl”) trots along in a combination of blank verse and thudding couplets, liberally sprinkled with quotes from and riffs on Shakespeare. I still haven’t worked out what this use of verse is meant to do. My initial guess was that it’s there to elevate an ordinary love affair to the level of the epic, the divine—but if this is the goal, Lyon and director Kennedy Bloomer are constantly undercutting it, especially with frequent snickering at sticking swears and everyday phrases and places into Shakespearean poetry. I love a good high-brow/low-brow contrast gag, but repetition makes it lose its shine.
In the first section of the play, this poetry and the Shakespeare references seem intended to highlight the shallowness of the lovers, their self-involved reliance on the image and idea of a perfect partner rather than the reality of the human being they’re confronted with. They flutter about the stage in the giddy throes of new love, the parodic embodiment of that annoying friend of yours who can’t stop talking about their new partner, yet has nothing of substance to say.
As this is the only glimpse of the positive side of things we ever get, it becomes difficult to invest in the relationship as it begins (no spoiler: Lyon’s opening monologue reveals this) to disintegrate. But if the beginning love scenes were meant to be serious in order to prime us to feel sad about this, then they’re absolutely not played that way. And the collapse itself seems meant to point up how immature and self-centred the lovers are: sudden mid-sex self-consciousness leads not to them pausing to talk about their feelings and fears and connection like adults, but rather to pull apart. From this single instance of erectile dysfunction, Boy begins? resumes? a descent into alcoholism which both the Girl and the script mostly treat like an annoying quirk, roughly equal to missing the toilet bowl when he pees. Certainly there is no meaningful confrontation over the fact that he clearly has a substance abuse problem—Girl just sighs that he loves the booze more than her and resolves to leave. Before the break-up, in fact, they have no conversations that aren’t in the key of parody, fantasy, or row.
But if this is the answer—that the title refers not just to the relationship, but to this pair of immature, shallow people—that never really gets filled out, either. By the end—indeed, from the start— it’s all plainly being framed as The Mysteries Of Love—why do we love someone one day, and hate them the next? Why do some loves just fade away? etc. Except there are really obvious, explicit answers to these questions in this case: because he’s an alcoholic, and they’re both either too immature or lack the self-awareness to have serious conversations with one another.
I kept waiting for Lyon to break out of the verse and cliché and say something real about this. Maybe that’s what all the poetry was for, I thought—set it up to break it down. But he didn’t. So clearly that wasn’t the point, either. But while Lyon and Newman are both charming, neither the plot nor the poetry is revelatory. There are lots of stories about straight people who are bad at love. I’m still working out what this one is trying to add.
Broken is on at Old Red Lion Theatre until 12th May. Book tickets here.