Every club has them, the older, smartly dressed people lurking at tables, ready to mop up the wasted 20-somethings at the end of the night and take them home to their nice grown-up flats. If they’re straight men we can confidently dismiss them as creeps, and groups of young women build in codes to keep each other safe. If they’re female, as Izzy Tennyson’s play astutely notes, it’s seen as different. Grotty follows a 22-year-old who’s too insecure, too lost to say no to the older lesbians who use her, pass her around – and is growing more and more isolated from the straight friends who might fight her corner.
One of my frustrations with the in-many-ways-excellent TV series Queer As Folk is the way it shows 15-year-old Nathan being taken up and dropped by scene lion Stuart. Their relationship is glamorised as a sexy rite-of-passage, the emotional repercussions of trailing round after a man twice your age blurred by the bright lights of Canal Street. As the name Grotty suggests, there’s barely a hint of this glamour to Tennyson’s play. She’s theoretically old enough to handle herself, but its protagonist Rigby is still utterly crushed by an unforgiving scene.
Grotty opens with a wildly funny monologue where she itemises London’s lesbian nights as three basements, dripping with sweat and pre-cum from the gay boy parties upstairs. Then, her narrative winds up in Dalston at defunct night Clam Jam – and it says something about the authenticity of Tennyson’s writing that she doesn’t even fictionalise the name. It’s the place where her protagonist Rigby ends up, night after night, in search of something. And where she gets found by Toad and Witch (each other’s exes, of course) who date her in turn, and inflict emotional abuse on her that sits on a sliding scale from casual belittlement, to sharing humiliating details of her sex life with their whole phone contact book, to pressuring her into wearing a dog collar and getting into BDSM. Grace Chilton’s performance as Witch is mesmerising: deadpan and unreadable, gaslighting Rigby one minute and cutting to her core the next. And I loved the way Anita-Joy Uwajeh fluidly morphs from Toad’s laddish, hat-wearing second ex (lesbian drama – it’s complicated) into a therapist whose gently bewildered at Rigby’s tortuously complicated love life.
Izzy Tennyson plays Rigby herself, using a sort of heightened, clowning-inspired movement that means she’s constantly gurning (that could be the ketamine, mind) and crumpling inwards in intense physical discomfort – a kind that’s almost painful to watch. This is Rigby, as Rigby sees herself. Everything is filtered through her depression, self-loathing, and frustration at a lesbian scene that’s destroying her. What’s less visible is Rigby, as other people see her – perhaps because Tennyson is so close to this character. Her previous shows have been solo ones, and it shows in the slight dislocation between her and the rest of the cast.
The insularity, the trapped-between-temples feeling of her narrative is what gives Grotty many of its joys: it can feel somewhere between an unexpectedly relatable stand-up set and eavesdropping on one half of a car-crash first date. Rigby’s depressive self-absorption is gently signalled within the narrative, too: her straight best friend and her therapist both point out that she’s the common factor in all this drama, that there’s a normal healthy relationship out there somewhere if she wasn’t bent on self-destructing.
But I guess it does give me a little pang to see the experience of lesbianism depicted with such relentless, unflinching bleakness. The scenes where they say that queer women are just straight girls with pixie cuts, the constant jokes at the expense of Toad’s weight, the squeamish horror of sex… it’s all so ugly. The ugliness is realistic, evidence of how Rigby gets sucked into the female equivalent of locker room talk, practiced by women who’ve become bitter after too long in a small, insular, gossipy scene. But it’s also left to hang a little too long in the damp air, without another voice to counter it.
Still, this darkness is welcome at a time when plays about non-heterosexual experience often feel like a bid for the love and acceptance of a heteronormative world, offered up like a crushed bunch of daisies from the paw of a miscreant toddler. The heartbreaking thing about Grotty is that the one note of romantic hope it offers is utterly trampled. Rigby’s too stuck in her own head to even notice that a friend of hers is hitting on her. It’s a moment that’s depicted with painful vividness, letting the audience see what she can’t, quite. However tightly Tennyson’s play buries itself in the basements of London’s lesbian underground, it’s about something pretty universal: the solipsism of loneliness, and the way Rigby’s misery blinds her to the world outside.
Grotty is on at the Bunker Theatre until 26th May. Book tickets here