Monday 10 December 2018

A true story of testicular angst

Review: My Left Nut, Bewley's Cafe Theatre, until April 7

Co-creator Michael Patrick also performs
Co-creator Michael Patrick also performs

Katy Hayes

This is a one-man show about a young Belfast lad who struggles to cope with the challenges of adolescence, including a worrying swelling on one of his testicles. He thinks the lump is caused by excessive masturbation, so he avoids telling anyone, specifically his mother. The whole business has been problematic for well over a year before he finally admits anything and a doctor gets called on to inspect the anatomical complexity.

The play was developed through Show in a Bag, a Dublin Fringe Festival-sponsored programme whereby performers and writers create easy-to-produce scripts from scratch. Countless successful productions have emerged from this scheme. The creators here are Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, both writing, whilst Kearney directs and Patrick performs. It is produced by Prime Cut and Pan Narrans, two companies from Belfast.

Patrick's brush with testicular trouble is a true story. It is set against the backdrop of the death of his father from motor neurone disease when he was eight, also true. The show presents a pleasing romp through adolescence, with plenty of energy and playfulness, and a vivid and funny picture of teenage boys figuring out their lives. His friends, Connor and Tommy, are well sketched in the writing and the playing, and the boisterous energy of the gang is palpable.

Patrick shows real dexterity in his acting as he slips easily from one cameo to the next. His version of his little-boy self is particularly effective. A highlight is the party scene, with some terrible dancing and a visitation from an ultra-slick line-dancing culchie cousin. Kearney directs with a sure touch, keeping the pace brisk and the performance entertaining. Visits to the doctor are cleverly used to build up suspense. The setting is minimal: a black chair and a couple of shirt and school-tie changes.

Less successful are the parts of the show that deal with the death of the father. Patrick and Kearney have not found a way to create genuine dramatic distance so this material lurches into sentimentality, defusing and undermining the black humour of the adolescent journey. When the father died there were four children, including a toddler. The mother character says: "I kept thinking I wish I had none of you." This is a promising thrust towards greater complexity, but the brave and provocative idea is quickly smoothed over in favour of a warm, sad fuzziness.

This is the downside of using personal experience to create narrative. It is hard for a writer or writers to have the necessary "splinter of ice in the heart", as Graham Greene put it, when the people involved are personal and real. Ruthlessness is a necessary ingredient in writing. But this is a first play for both Kearney and Patrick and is certainly promising. There is plenty of flash and verve in much of it, and if the whole isn't equal to the sum of the parts, many parts are very good indeed.



Look back in anger, answer back in rhyme

The Gate theatre has just introduced this welcome initiative whereby individual artists are commissioned to respond to the main play with a 10.30pm after-show performance.

Writer and actor Emmet Kirwan is the inaugural guinea pig. Kirwan is best known for the hit two-hander Dublin Oldschool, which emerged from the Fringe and made its way to the Project Arts Centre and London's National Theatre. His spoken-word short film Heartbreak became a viral sensation.

Kirwan's writing is characterised by a punchy challenge to the status quo, class and gender consciousness, and a linguistic elegance. This 30-minute show consists of three spoken-word monologues performed by Kirwan. He describes John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger as a psychological attack by a man on a woman, and points to the play's concern with class.

The first poem is about "souls who move to the city and get lost", with a lyrical refrain linking Limerick and Vladivostok. Kirwan's persona is winning, and his robust rhymes and clarity of thought lend themselves perfectly to a late-night show.

The second poem is about class and is a tour-de-force. Kirwan presents his parents, an archetypal Ma and Da who worry for their "can't-shut-up" son provoking politicians on the doorstep. For Da, "the state is like the Stasi". There is a shocking account of a vicious street assault: "I didn't run, I wish I had." A brilliant passage investigates the way accent and language are used as tools of class subjugation. The emotion here is pitched high; director Oonagh Murphy judges the tone just right.

The third piece is a love-poem, with the refrain "I love you woman", and is the most direct reproach to the Osborne play. It generates a softer, more intimate mood to round out the evening.

This is a deeply thought-provoking and enjoyable mini show, and Kirwan is the real deal - an artist with the knack of creating a viral dynamism around social issues. Somewhere, the ghost of Seán O'Casey is smiling.

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