I went to see SparkPlug on my own so to counter that I’m going to write like I’m talking to someone in the pub.
So it’s about a man, who fancies his sister’s best mate, and he goes to pick them up from Moss Side, from a party, in his car, at the start of the show. And it’s all a monologue by the way. And he gets to Moss Side and starts talking about how dark it is and how dark the people are and how scary that makes them and how there’s a group of scary black lads and rastas near where he’s parked and he wishes he’d locked his doors. And I’m thinking, ‘Ok, so this man’s a racist, and this play is about a man raising a mixed-race kid and he’s going to learn that his fear is wrong and harmful.’
And then he goes into the party, throws one of the black people down the stairs and finds his sister’s mate, Joanne, is pregnant by a black man called Ainsley, who has beaten her up and left her covered in blood.
But he still fancies her and tells her he’ll look after her, so he marries her and they raise little David (named after him) together. David is mixed race, cos his mum’s white. So he has two white parents and brown skin. And there’s a lot of heartwarming sort of little anecdotes which could be about any parent and their child. But this dad struggles with disciplining his son – because deep down he still feels he’s not ‘really’ his.
But he doesn’t love him any less. He goes out of his way to tell us how much he loves him. Other family members are more racist than he is, particularly David’s grandma, who’s pretty horrible. And David’s mum is gradually painted as less and less caring. She disciplines David, which we are told is because she loves him less. And I’m losing sympathy for this dad character, because he’s leaving all the difficult parenting to Joanne, and he’s the one who gets to tell the story and make it seem like she’s cold and indifferent in an uncomplicated way.
One day, a black couple come knocking on the dad’s door, claiming his son attacked their daughter on the way homefrom school and called her the n-word. And then David’s dad gets to mimic their accents in an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment. Because his son is brown and the dad character gets to be smug so it doesn’t matter whether he assaulted another kid.
And then Joanne leaves. In an argument, she says they should let David choose who to live with. And David chooses his dad because his Dad never disciplines him so that’s that and Joanne is gone. Until it turns out she goes on a TV talkshow and she’s a lesbian now and the dad gets really angry because just think how David’s going to be treated by the kids at school now that his mum’s a lesbian.
We get to hear some homophobic slurs shouted and I’m amazed that the dad character who’s telling this story isn’t more interested in his ex-wife’s coming out, after having lived with her for about ten years or so. Though he also never seemed to have a conversation with her so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. But now not only is Joanne cold and cruel, she’s a cold and cruel spiteful lesbian now – how on earth could she be expected to care about or look after her son?
I thought the main dad character was supposed to be neurotic and unsympathetic, obsessive. But it turns out all the rewards are his at the end really. He (I think) wins the custody battle over David. He smashes up a pub because his ex-wife is in it, and this is used as a segue into a reveal that he used to get in lots of fights when he was a teenager, and went to jail for a bit for it. After that he promised to change his ways. And David is this precious little thing which he loves and makes him want to be a better person. But he still smashes up a pub and never has to face up to his rainbow of toxic emotions.
The dad has a disdain for black culture, he’s racist and homophobic and doesn’t have to answer for it; loving a mixed-race child is enough. The last word is David the child’s. His dad reveals to him he has another dad, his ‘real dad’, a black one. Which David reckons is a daft thing to say and he goes to sleep. His dad has won his love, his validation.
There’s a sort of reveal towards the end that this dad’s own dad died when he was young – which suggests a deep psychic wound in him which goes unprobed. It comes out like a by-the-way.
The themes of SparkPlug are largely uncomplicated and feel like repetitions of old school prejudices, made to spark recognition more than critical engagement. For a play about a white man raising a mixed-race son, this dad learns very little about race. He’s obstinate and self-absorbed, and obsessive in proving his worthiness to be loved by a child. I worry about the sort of dad he is. But also I suppose he’s pretty normal when it comes to white British men. And I suppose violent, absent white men are what we inherit in this country, whether we like it or not.
SparkPlug runs at HOME, Manchester until 23 February, then tours the UK until 13 April. More info here.