A young woman emerges from a toilet cubicle, glimmering in dress and boots, adding glamour to the grime of TheatreofplucK’s anarchic production. This lavatory could easily be a cynical setting for Niall Rea’s new play, co-written with Alice Malseed, which seeks to imagine young people’s futures – are they living in the toilet? Surprisingly, the sewer is a refuge.
Arrived at a school dance, Malseed’s woman swings from dejection to hope. Run-ins with an assaulting ex-boyfriend and a rejecting ex-girlfriend evoke the life of a young person unfairly treated. She considers other – possibly more liberating – places to live, but passes instead beyond the threshold of a gay nightclub on her doorstep, and soaks in the euphoria.
Rea’s rigorous production passionately subverts the treatment of LGBTQ people like dirt, and shows their transcendence in candy-coloured lights and feel-good synths. One minute, Warren McCook’s freighted young man agonises after being outed as gay by toilet graffiti. The next, one of his earliest sexual fantasies is given a committed performance.
There’s times, unfortunately, when the script seems to have come from a self-visualisation exercise, abandoning characterisation for pronouncements of different realities. ‘Imagine if it rained real glitter’. ‘Imagine if there was an alternative Ulster’. As cloying as these are, there is no denying the poignant hope of when a young transgender man (played eloquently by Holly Hannaway) speaks into a bathroom mirror: ‘Imagine if everyday was different’.
That’s a tender and soft moment in a production that often feels over-pitched, with deliveries ranging eclectically from intimate confessional to surreal and absurdist. The result is frustratingly bombastic, with performers straining to be heard over the music. Moments of genuine connection are only rarely glimpsed, mostly in Vicky Allen’s flexible choreography.
Perhaps this is best seen as a polemic. When a man (a deft Cathan McRobert) takes us on a cruising episode, only for it to end in violence, it also glimpses the shame experienced by his assailant. These internal pains turn into decisive thoughts about the road ahead. ‘I think we’ll have to break rules in the future,’ says a scared voice. ‘Is this a safe space? Asking for a friend,’ someone answers.
It’s admirable to search for visions of empowerment and happiness in the gutter, to see young people rebel against a world that’s been less than kind. But in this chaotic form, the polemic is hard to hear.
Tactics for Time Travel in a Toilet is on until 18 November at The Barracks, Belfast. Click here for more details.