I had been looking forward to this play, which promised to challenge gender roles, and our understanding of masculinity and femininity, through a subversive comedy. However, this good idea is hamstrung in a play which is way too heavy on the tell rather than show, and where shrieking too often replaced drama.
Isaac (Arthur Darvill) is a Marine returning to the States after several years fighting overseas. Discharged in murky circumstances, he hopes to find comfort in the arms of his poor working-class family, who still live in their cheap starter home. Only, in his absence, the dynamics of his family have been turned upside down.
His once-tyrannical father, Arnold (Andy Williams) has had a severe stroke, but rather than being cared for by his wife, Paige (Ashley McGuire), he is being emasculated in a sadistic set-up where Paige is finally getting her own back for years of abuse. She refuses to care for him – preferring to make him wear a nightdress, make-up, and force him to sleep on the kitchen floor. She has abandoned the domestic chores that have enslaved her for her whole life so the once-ordered family home now resembles a rubbish tip. Instead, she has embraced the role her husband has vacated, transforming herself into an empowered, if cruel, head of the family.
Paige sees this as an emancipatory act, a position emboldened by her support and encouragement of Isaac’s sister, Maxine, now Max, (Griffyn Gilligan) who is on a course of hormones to transition into a boy.
Isaac’s response to this new order is to shout. A lot. All the way through, in fact. Shout and vomit – that is pretty much all he does. And it’s numbing. Even if there was an attempt here to blend PTSD with shock and addiction issues, you find yourself craving a variety in emotional reaction. And for someone to please turn the volume down a notch. Even at the climax, Isaac’s response is, much like a boy band at a key change, to stand up and shout even louder.
I wondered if the production would benefit from a more complicated, nuanced central character but, truthfully, there are fundamental issues throughout.
The writing comes from Taylor Mac, and judy (Mac’s preferred gender pronoun) is obviously passionate about transgender rights and interested in exploring how these can shift our understanding and allocation of gender roles both in society and in the home. But the dialogue just seems to be vast extracts of blog discussion posts. These are lectures on gender pronouns and masculinity packaged up as conversation. It’s not believable, it doesn’t feel real, and you crave an opportunity for the characters to speak as they feel, rather than so cerebrally.
The first half simply comprises Paige and Max standing relatively stationery in the middle of the lounge lecturing Isaac on gender politics. I mean, their son/brother has just come back from war. They haven’t seen him in three years… I just figured they might have something else to say!
In fact, what is interesting is how much variation director Nadia Fall has taken from the original play, and I’ve wondered on the impact of this. Taylor Mac calls for the production to be immersed in Absurd Realism, and gives pointers on how this can be achieved. Not all of them are taken. It seems the desire was to make this production more realistic than absurd. That may give weight to moments of genuine emotional impact, particularly in the second half, but it does mean that sometimes the characters are left a little adrift, particularly Paige.
Again, Taylor Mac’s writing reveals a desire to have Paige more conflicted about her decisions, particularly towards the end. That rings more truthful than the very steely depiction of a vengeful matriarch here. That conflict would also have helped explain away the more absurd elements of Paige’s behaviour. But these weren’t taken and, as a result, you do come away with the feeling that this production could have brought so much more.
Bush Theatre, London, to July 22, 2017
Tickets from £10
All production images by Ellie Kurttz.