Jian Ghomesi’s show, Q, used to be a valuable source of YouTube downtime. Now, as he faces accusations of violent sexual assault (with compelling evidence), one can’t help feeling aware of a serious cognitive dissonance: this is a man who politely interviewed Steven Fry. This is a man who, it has been alleged, abuses women. Trying to reconcile these facts is impossible. But if you don’t know the people involved, it is easy enough to forget about it, and move on.
Stuart Slade’s debut play deals explicitly with recent cases of historical sexual abuse allegations against well known figures. It creates an uncomfortable thought experiment: what if the person accused was someone you loved? In Cans, Jen is dealing not just with the recent suicide of her father but also the allegations of abuse against him: she has to rebuild her image of him from the bottom up.
Jen and her uncle Len sit in the garage of her family home, talking and drinking secret cans of cider as they sort through her father’s possessions. As they examine the physical traces of the man they are also reordering their memories of him, grieving both for the man himself – Jen’s father, Len’s brother – and their memories of the man they thought they knew.
Slade’s play also sees them re-examining what it means to be ‘good’. Len describes his brother as the golden boy of the family; he was better than him at everything and had all of the things which are supposed to make for a ‘good’ life: a career, money, a family. He was assumed by everyone to be the better of the two. Len, by contrast, is workshy, irresponsible, feckless; a drinker who survived on hand-outs from his brother. He is, by most people’s standards, not a successful adult. But he is also witty and empathetic, possessing both sensitivity and emotional intelligence. He is also ‘good’, a moral man despite his facade and seemingly more content than his brother.
Despite its potentially difficult subject matter, Cans is also very, very funny. The humour doesn’t just provide comic relief, it serves a purpose, allowing the characters to think through things that would otherwise be impossible to face. Slade is good at writing vulgar banter and using it to counter the play’s troubling revelations and outbursts of emotion. In this way he holds the audience rapt for an hour and a half despite the play featuring very little action. Only rarely does the pacing falter; only one or two of the jokes fall flat.
In one of the play’s most memorable scenes Len expounds on the lyrics of the MC Hammer classic ‘U Can’t Touch This’. There is also the implicit suggestion that its central refrain, ‘can’t touch this’, might be applied to the play itself, and its difficult subject matter: it’s a hard, and brave, thing to write about. But this play proves that it can be touched, provided it’s done with care and intelligence, both things evident in Slade’s accomplished debut.