Comedian Simon Topping’s first solo show is an engaging if slightly undercooked biographical piece, tracing his life from a childhood in the post-industrial northern town where he grew up, to the south, where he made his home.
Working through a loosely strung together series of anecdotes and slipping through a variety of characters (his hard-working navvy grandfather, his mother, his anarchic brother), Topping presents a life marred by early grief, upheaval and otherness. His father died suddenly when he was young, he discovered a brother he didn’t know he had, and he grew up a boy loving fancy hats and flower arranging in a place with fairly set ideas about masculinity.
Topping’s background is in improv, and it shows – both to the production’s benefit and its detriment. He’s a performer of considerable charm, immensely likeable, and there’s a pleasing freewheeling spontaneity to the piece, peppered with plenty of laughs. We are treated to a slideshow of family photos, birthday cards and sibling Facebook chats, interspersed with the easy nostalgia of communal cultural touchstones (The A-Team, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks).
But even with its hour-long running time, the piece could be much tighter – some bits work better than others, and although it feels commendably honest, it lacks genuine depth. There’s a feeling of skating the surface that it never quite shakes, a skittering away from any real examination of the issues it covers.
(In fairness, this is not helped the production is fighting against an ill-suited venue, with raucous conversations from the curtained-off café next door regularly spilling into show. While this did give it an intimate air – like leaning into a friend’s conversation in a rowdy pub – there were also moments when my attention was pulled from what was happening to Topping’s family to the loudly recounted drama of Susan’s hen-night.)
There’s the bones of a fascinating piece here – an examination of toxic masculinity (embodied by Topping’s ex-soldier brother and his penchant for inappropriate nudity), grief and the roles in life we assign ourselves, and how we fight those assigned to us by others – but to find them, it needs to dig much deeper. But it’s a promising first show, with enough raw material to feel that, with a little bit of polish, it could truly shine.
Why I Had to Leave the North is on until 13 May 2018 at the Brighton Fringe. Click here for more details.