Directed By Sam Strong
Monologues are hard. In my first year at university we put on a production of Gary Owen’s Ghost City, which is essentially a collection of 25 monologues. It was a very useful exercise for us in terms of developing as actors, and while I thought it was quite a strong show (some of my classmates might disagree) I spoke to a lot of people who simply thought, “two hours of monologues… not really a good thing”. I’ve often wondered why this is the case and I think it’s because in life, we rarely listen to one person speaking for extended lengths of time, there’s generally some sort of dialogue. If we are listening to the one person speak for an extended period, it’s generally in a classroom or lecture situation, experiences we don’t normally associate with captivation. That being said, last year I went to a couple of one-person shows that I thoroughly enjoyed. Radio at the Old Fitz, was a beautiful story, tenderly acted by Andrew Bibby, and My Name Is Rachel Corrie, offered a strikingly personal insight into the Palestine/Israel conflict that brought me to tears. However, even in these works, there were moments when the labour of listening to the same voice for over an hour hit home and I tuned out. Therefore, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached Thom Pain (based on nothing). I knew Luke Mullins was a talented actor, and I had also heard good things about Will Eno’s script, but would it be enough to keep me interested? In short, yes.
At the heart of Thom Pain is a story of lost love. It would perhaps be too simplistic to say that it is Thom’s story, because one is never really sure who Thom Pain is, and whether anything or in fact everything is personal. The telling of the story is broken up by moments of existential contemplation, stand-up comedy, and audience interaction. If anything, it is this relationship, between audience and performer which is the core of Thom Pain.
The stage is completely bare, apart from a chair and a glass of water and from the moment the lights go down, the audience is on the back foot. I find it highly disappointing that in these days of OH&S the head usher has to tell us beforehand that the play will begin with an “intense blackout” (as opposed to a more placid “greyout” I suppose) because it somewhat spoils the surprise. However, as I discovered earlier in the year at Benedict Andrews’ The City, blackouts can really affect you whether you know they’re coming or not. Something about being plunged into darkness for an extended period of time sets some sort of inner alarm bell off, warning you that you’re vulnerable. Perhaps this fear is why so many mobile phone lights were visible in the audience at this point. More likely some people are just shit. Regardless, there was something truly wonderful about Luke Mullins appearing out the darkness with the lighting of a match. It was even better when he returned to darkness and kept talking, asking questions about how he looked. This production stopped you from getting comfortable for a long time. For the first fifteen minutes you were never quite sure what was coming next, and it was only after you got used to expecting the unexpected that you allowed yourself to relax. This settling was of course subverted later on.
Some of my favourite moments in theatre are when you ask yourself the question was that meant to happen? Surely that can’t have been rehearsed? The most memorable for me was the time during Exit The King when Geoffrey Rush’s wig fell off and he quickly replaced it whilst mumbling, “You weren’t meant to see that. 1, 2, 3 and you’re back in the room!” The ultimate pay-off was later in the show when the wig was taken off to reveal Rush’s decaying body, one performer exclaimed, “That’s never happened before!” The solution to the problem was almost too good to be random. Throughout Thom Pain I found myself wondering time and again what was detail and what was accident. By the end I had come to the conclusion that nothing was left to chance, it was just good theatre. This included a great piece of audience plant work, where someone ran out of the theatre, and Mullins ran after him saying goodbye, only to remark unhappily “cunt!” while returning to the stage. For a moment I was genuinely fooled, and was sure that this “random” audience member had just got a text message about his wife being in labour. Unfortunately, the text went on about the exit for just a little bit too long, and I recall being very disappointed upon realising that it was faked. But you were just as unsure when the glass of water was spilt, or when a light came up on a different area of the stage to where Mullins was standing. Throughout, the audience expectation was played with, culminating in the final section of the play where an audience member was brought up onto stage to help Pain finish the story.
Luke Mullins’ meticulous performance was stunning. He had impressed me before, particularly with the STC Actor’s Company, but this was a new level of his work for me. I’m sure that that is in part due to the intimacy of Downstairs Belvoir, but I also feel that the text gave him a lot of room to explore to the full realm of his abilities. No gesture was out of place, and his voice moved through its registers as if he was singing. He gave the words sufficient bite to confront you, but he also kept the sense of intimacy required for us to care about his stories. He also generated a lot of trust, which was important because of the playful nature of the work. I didn’t really mind when he made me jump in my seat by screaming “boo!” in my face, and I was more than happy to watch him as he laughed to himself for a while after commenting “I have a vibrant inner life”. The details created a fascinating portrait of a man, who almost made not wearing socks with a suit look good.
After a somewhat disappointing finish to the last B Sharp season, I’m once again excited about this strong start for one of my favourite spaces. Will Thom Pain be another Ladybird, the standout beginning that was too hard for the rest to live up to? I guess I’ll find out at the Lonesome West next week.