Sam would like to introduce us to Mark – a facial birthmark that’s been their constant companion since birth, and something which they’re only just ready to talk about. Using ‘Sam’ as a common character which each performer can step into, O&O’s devised piece The Way I Look is a whistle-stop tour of the realities of looking different.
There isn’t a weak link in this ensemble. Each performer slips easily into Sam’s story with their own particular style, but each always seems comfortably in tandem with the others. There’s a practised, end-of-tour ease as they pull the threads of the show together, and the tone shifts confidently through direct address, light-touch comedy, and more abstract moments of physicality and vocalisation.
The Way I Look has a wholeness to it, an understatedly well-constructed script, and a real sense of stagecraft in the thoughtful use of space and set. I can do without the clutter of books and mugs to set some of the scenes – the performers are too good to need them – but the playful use of picture frames appeals directly to the first-year Drama student in me who still absolutely loves seeing a show about looking with literal framing devices in it.
While the impetus behind the piece comes from Tessa Gaukroger’s own lived experience as someone with a facial birthmark, we’re told after the show that Sam’s story is a coming together of this autobiographical material and external testimonials from other sources. In performance, this does get a little muddy; there’s a through-line about drama school which reads very much as belonging to Gaukroger, while it’s also apparent that one of the functions of the ‘Sam’ persona is to broaden the overall scope beyond her experiences. But there’s a confusion around ownership of the anecdotes and whether we ought to believe they are real or invented. And in trying to appeal to anyone who’s ever felt a bit out of the norm, the piece loses some of the sting of being stigmatised specifically for facial differences.
Some, but by no means all – because while The Way I Look has plenty of laughs, there are also some potent moments of frustration, hurt, and pain. Emerson Pike’s interrogative doctor is realistically and ignorantly cruel, and Marina O’Shea’s audition monologue is quietly brutal. And there’s a real intelligence with how Gaukroger’s direct address in particular holds the piece in balance – she is warmly challenging, guardedly open. Humour breaks the ice but is clearly also a coping mechanism, and the audience is both invited in and held at arm’s length.
On the whole, The Way I Look doesn’t feel like a confrontational piece, and definitely goes by the school of thought that empathy is the quickest way to understanding. If it doesn’t quite demand and provoke, it does at least take it in good faith that you will go away thinking. The Way I Look is an open-hearted show which takes a soft approach to ‘the personal is political’, and whilst it might not start an argument in the car on the ride home, it will certainly start a conversation.
The Way I Look was at Exeter Phoenix on October 29th. For more details, click here.