“I don’t know how to touch you,” whispers Hench to Jennifer, the new girl on the estate as they stand together in what passes for his bedroom. This is only one of the things he lacks.
This idea that absence begets absence, lack begets lack is at the heart of Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood winning play. Hench and his brother Bobby have grown up without a lot of things. Their mother is a chaotic individual, a drinker and a diabetic, who has recently moved out to live with her new boyfriend “minge-face” Alan, both boys have dropped out of school and, when the play opens, they’re down to one T-shirt between them, which is less of a problem then you’d think as they don’t go out much expect to nick a few cans from the corner shop.
The play hinges on a violent act, an event the audience never see but which acts like a wound in its middle. Jordan spends the first half of the play breathing life into the boys’ world. They live in a sparsely furnished Feltham flat, with a three bar fire glowing and growling, a stand-in for the unseen, under-fed dog (called Taliban) who has been consigned to the other room.
What with this snarling, symbolic beast in their backroom and the tender-aggressive interplay between the two brothers, Yen would bring to mind Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur even if it wasn’t for the Ned Bennett connection. Bennett directed the thrillingly intense revival at the Old Red Lion in 2012 (remember that, remember the drum-skin sensation of a whole room holding its breath as one?) This play is far more earthed than Ridley’s, but there are peripheral flickers of the dystopian here which Bennett’s direction brings out. The boys live in a curtained-off world, one wall of their home eaten up by a vast TV screen, here represented by a grid of floodlights which flicker when they play videogames. They worship before this like an altar.
While it never quite seeps into Pests territory (the play by Vivienne Franzmann where the characters communicate in a language of their own making, a slangy sort of twin-speak) there is still a kind of sibling shorthand at work here though the dialogue is more natural. It’s also very funny, their bickering, their observations, the numerous ways in which Bobby winds up his brother. Even when they are debating whether their diabetic mother is having a hypo or just pissed out of her head, Jordan draws comedy from it. Their world is a heightened one, but only slightly, everything a little stretched. When they throw a party in their living room, they bring on a fucking nugget mountain, a Krakatoa of breaded things, a fish finger Fortress of Solitude (there’s a heroic amount of nugget consumption in this scene).
Bennett has reunited his Pomona dream team (or should that be nightmare team). Georgia Lowe’s set is like a jungle gym of rusted metal, unsettlingly floodlit by Elliott Griggs. Giles Thomas’ ominous pulsing music adds to the effect. The actors all nail it, completely, particularly the complex relationship between the brothers, a tangle of protectiveness and resentment. There’s a bit when Alex Austin’s sixteen year old Hench seems to almost make himself thinner, to pull his skin tighter, his eyes deep as pits. Jake Davies’ Bobby is far more puppy-like, endearing but with an edge of menace – there’s a sense of unease about what he might become.
The humour might well work against the play in places. Though we see both boys twitching and sweating through nightmares, the reservoirs of aggression, the violence within them, emerge somewhat suddenly. I don’t think Jordan is blaming video games for this sudden turn rather their impact in an emotionally barren landscape. I do think she is blaming porn and its prevalence, the saturation of such imagery. A repeated motif is both boys’ confusion about what sex should actually entail, a distaste for pubic hair, and an insidious understanding that sex is something you do to and not with a women. Talking about ejaculation, Bobby declares he would like to come in a girl’s eyes. “Blind the bitch”
Annes Elwy’s Jennifer provides a necessary contrast to their bravado. Though she plays the role well she comes across as a little bit too collected for a girl of her age, a little bit more like a catalyst than a character. Her life has been marked by deprivation, loss and upheaval too, and yet she remains gentle and caring and functional. Perhaps this is because she has known love in a more consistent and reliable way then the brothers, or perhaps because she is a girl and has been subject to a different set of pressures and expectations. In fact it’s hard not to think of this and Jordan’s two-hander Freak as companion pieces of a kind, the latter addressing the impact of a heavily sexualized culture on young women.
The play is set in Feltham, which is very close to where I grew up. However my memories of the place are limited. I remember it as being home to an infamous Young Offenders Institution and home to a massive cemetery (possibly not that massive, but that’s how it has fixed itself in my memory) as well as being a source of insults at school. You could taint a person with Feltham, you could mark them with it. It’s also quite close to Heathrow and is one of those edge-lands much beloved of Simon Stephens, which is fitting because it’s Stephens’ Punk Rock, or rather its clinical coda, which springs to mind in the final few scenes set in the months after the act of violence which splits the play. The tonal shift is jarring, but intentionally so.
It is in these scenes that we hear more from the boys’ mother, Sian Breckin’s Maggie, and get more of a sense of the things that have shaped her, the losses and the pain she has suffered in her life, though Jordan in no way lets her off the hook for her neglect of her sons, she treats her with compassion, as does Breckin.
The thing with these scenes is they feel more researched. You can see the scaffolding of the narrative a little more clearly here, see the play thinking itself away from the awful thing in its middle (which does at times feel like a device, like it came before the characters rather than the other way round; which may well be the case, as it was I believe inspired by a news report. Jordan wanted to explore how such an event might come to happen, how two young men might end up doing a thing like that). It is in this later part of the play that Jordan seems more explicitly to be asking questions, lots of necessary and potent questions, true, but you can hear them being asked more clearly. It is not entirely empty of hope as a piece of writing, and everyone in it is a human being, with strengths and failings, everyone in it is shaded – even Jennifer, though she is the least well drawn of the quartet, is faceted. But there’s a drive to the early scenes which dissipates once circumstances force the brothers apart. I found I missed the tumble of the play’s first half, the fierce three-bar heat generated by those boys locked in that dark room of theirs.
Exeunt’s review of Anna Jordan’s Freak.