Shy bairns get nowt.
If you grew up in the North East, you’ve probably heard this phrase at least once or twice. Especially, if like me, you were a painfully awkward teenager. In high school, I ascended the social ranks when I started dating a boy who was much cooler than me. Overnight his friends became my friends. I spent less time in the library and more time at parties. It was an accident but it felt good. You’ve really come out of your shell. That’s what everyone said. It seemed like a compliment so I took it. A coming-age comedy drama about shyness should’ve been right up my street.
The Shy Manifesto is a one-man show starring Theo Ancient as Callum, a precocious teenager wrestling with his identity. As the play begins, he bursts forward onto the stage with a flurry of superior declarations about the advantages of being alone. Already, I’m a little confused. This character speaks like no teenager I’ve ever met. His command of language is absurdly dexterous and smug. In the first ten minutes I’m searching for relatability and I’m struggling to find it. I understand I’m meant to go with it. His verbosity is part of a wall he’s built to protect himself. He’s hiding behind his intellectualism. Still, I’m irritated. It’s skilfully written but where’s the warmth?
I need to address something. Not long into the performance there’s a reference to autism. When I hear it, my heart sinks. It’s only a couple of lines and it’s never revisited. Yet it stays with me for all the wrong reasons. There’s a mention of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time followed by a checklist of symptoms. The audience responds with light laughter and I’m intensely uncomfortable. I’ll be the first to admit autism is something which affects my life directly so obviously this criticism is influenced by my personal experience. I think I can say, with some authority though, that anything which perpetuates negative assumptions about autistic people is fundamentally reductive and unhelpful. If it was meant to address these assumptions knowingly and with humour, it failed. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only lazy stereotype. Throughout Callum introduces other characters. His mother. Her friend. His drama teacher. These female characters seem functional and not fully-formed. I’m also uncertain about how the play deals with sexuality. More on that later.
Even though The Shy Manifesto is problematic in places, there are elements of compelling storytelling. In its strongest moments, the play does well to articulate the real pain of being a teenager. As Callum recounts the horror of a drunken night at an end-of-term party, I’m with him in his mortification. Alistair Lax’s sound design highlights the melodrama of adolescence and Theo Ancient’s performance as a young man unravelling is deft and convincing. I believe he is humiliated, I believe he is in conflict. And that’s there in the writing too.
The revelation that Callum might be harbouring romantic inclinations towards another boy at school comes late on. Is his repressed sexuality the reason for his shyness? It’s not clear. Then, there’s the representation of a gay boy in his class which is told through a jumble of Ru-Paul references and you go girl quips. It’s kind-of questionable at best. In fairness, not many of the characters other than Callum are explored to their fullest. They’re extraneous, really. Just tools to tell the story. There’s a lot going on here and while I don’t believe every piece of theatre should have a neat resolution, I’m not really sure what the play is getting at.
The Shy Manifesto isn’t for me which is not to say that it won’t be enjoyable for some, but I do wonder who the play is for. It feels masculine. When I think about shyness, I think about how women are often conditioned to apologise for taking up space. I think about softness, and the burden of social expectation for women; the pressure to nurture and to appease and to say the right thing. I didn’t see any of that here. I needed Callum to be likable, to be vulnerable. But in the end I couldn’t find a point of connection, as much as I wanted one.
The Shy Manifesto was at Live Theatre, Newcastle from 29-30 January. It tours the UK until 4 March. More info here.