4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)
3 stars ***
Assembly Rooms (Venue 3)
HERE ARE THREE SOLO PLAYS about men who live in lonely rooms, somewhere on the frontier between sanity and madness. Where they differ is in the level of awareness they bring to their plight; and it’s interesting that the finest of the plays is the one in which the speaker – himself a writer – is most able to move in and out of the heartland of his own pain, and to achieve a certain kindly perspective on it.
Adam Rapp’s Nocturne – an exquisite monologue about the aftermath of family tragedy, already acclaimed in New York and London – arrives at the Traverse in a memorably intense solo version produced by the Almeida Theatre in London, and given an entrancingly powerful, engaging performance by Peter McDonald. At the beginning, our speaker tells us how he ran over and killed his little sister one day when he was 17, driving an old Buick Electra with a failed brake line; at the end, an utterly absorbing 100 minutes later, we see him return from his lonely but creative life as a penniless writer in New York to reach some kind of accommodation with his dying father, and to sit with him through his final hours, in the bleak ruins of what was once an outwardly happy all-American family.
The arc of the story is intensely conventional, almost to the point of sentimentality; and the play’s long final scene, in Matt Wilde’s production, is so deliberately muted and static that it almost seems to exclude the audience. But despite the occasional writerly tendency to wallow in description when narrative is required, Rapp has created a beautiful and moving monologue, which – like all the best solo shows – leaves audiences feeling that they have just experienced a magnificent full-length movie of the mind.
The hero of Culturcated Theatre’s Borderline, by contrast, achieves a sense of perspective about his own behaviour only fitfully. Sometimes – in Rob Benson’s fascinating and sometimes frightening performance of his own solo play – he seems sensible, calm, even witty about his plight as a lifelong sufferer from borderline personality disorder; at other times, he “loses it” completely, raging and fighting, rejecting the medication that keeps him stable, and entering into a dark fantasy-world full of violence, delusion, and self-destruction.
Benson’s play shifts perspective so violently, and begins with a passage of such wild disturbance, that it’s difficult, initially, either to grasp the situation, or to empathise with the character’s pain. But this is a show performed with passion, and stuffed with sharp observation and anger about the plight of people with mental health problems in a society that’s not only unsympathetic to their attempts to restart their lives, but also stuffed with temptations in the shape of drink and illegal drugs, and full of supposedly sane people leading lonely, autistic lives, to the solitary musical soundtrack of their personal players.
The lonely man at the centre of Owen O’Neill’s monologue Absolution, playing at the Assembly Rooms, speaks from a prison cell, as he recounts the series of brutal punishment murders he has carried out on four priests who sexually abused young children. In Rachel O’Riordan’s production, O’Neill’s text has a driving narrative energy so fierce it almost smells of burning flesh, and his performance is both intensely physical, and vocally compelling, as he evokes the mind of a man still totally caught up in his own deranged dream of vengeance. In the end, though, O’Neill seems not to know what to do with the rage that drives the story; and he finishes with a gratuitous, spiteful twist in the tale that fails to add anything to the narrative, and tends to undermine the integrity of what has gone before.
Nocturne and Borderline until 24 August, Absolution until 25 August
pp. 218, 187, 180.