The Cornerstone Theatre, 17 Shaw Street
13th and 14th May 2017
Reviewed by Sandra Gibson
Photographs by Debbie Morgan
I’ve been writing this play for two years. It was first shown last year at Unity as part of their Scratch evening. I have worked with Graham (Hicks) before, on the Anfield Home Tour, and Denise (Kennedy) and I graduated from The Everyman and Playhouse Playwrights’ Programme. This play was written specifically for these two actors. Debbie Morgan
You don’t often come across plays where the main character is a skeleton but Debbie Morgan evokes the conventions of mediaeval theatre in incorporating our jaw-dropping friend, Jim. The Punter, directed by Tim Lynskey, examines the existential dilemma faced by all. Within the setting of a therapy session, the two protagonists Doc (Denise Kennedy) and The Punter (Graham Hicks) enact the painful scenario of their suffering during the ten minute talking time allocated by austerity cuts.
This sounds potentially bleak, but it isn’t. The biographies are presented with humour and a poignancy which lifts things way beyond circumstantial banality into moments of clarity and compassion. The urgency of minutes passing is stressed throughout and in no time at all our multi-tasking, guilt-driven, stressed-out therapist is subjected to the hyper-active utterances of her client, who thrusts his itchy cock in her face whilst exposing his bum to the audience. It’s a win-win situation, comedically speaking, and had the audience roaring with mirth. This cartoon-like directness is sustained in a mad car chase and in an edgy scene involving huge scissors.
It emerges that, problem for problem, there is little to distinguish the therapist from her client, despite her efforts to maintain professional distance and dignity, and this equalisation of suffering is encapsulated by a carefully choreographed danse a trois with Jim the omnipresent skeleton: so bone-white against the black set. The bony clickiness of a skeleton offers immediate visual humour, which we have all encountered in pantomimes and fairground rides, but its silent potency goes further and that is why I have maintained that Jim is the central character. What could be more central than the big issue of life’s transience and the inevitability of death and what to do in the face of such a threatened stopping? The skeleton is literally and metaphorically our life’s companion and our fate – an awkwardness that causes us to relegate it to the world of popular entertainment in order to cope.
This memento mori theme is economically and thoroughly established: Tony Cairns’ black and white set, with its broken lines, references the duality of existence, whilst also consolidating the austerity cuts theme. Add to that the presence of a crucifix; the threat of the enormous scissors; time ticking away in ten minute sessions; an ominous knocking at the door; life’s car-share with the forces of misrule; Doc’s stethoscope measuring the internal rhythms of life and, phew! you have enough vanitas symbols to petrify a congregation of sinners.
And all brought up to date by that modern thief of everyone’s time: the computer screen.
The play juxtaposes Doc’s exaggerated attachment to slim Jim (and to that most desiccated biscuit, the cream cracker) with The Punter’s embracing of the natural world and the meditative calm of carp fishing. He has rejected the conventional medical wisdom of mind-numbing remedies; will his therapist find her own way of rescuing her fragile sanity – of embracing the life that is so fleeting? What effect will each have on the other?
Performance was a tour de force for the two actors; both were onstage for virtually all the time and there was nowhere to hide. It was a physically exacting piece: well-choreographed, performed unfalteringly, with generosity of energy, and expressed in the vivacious language (“letting your pain take a piss”) we have come to expect from Debbie Morgan. The intimacy of the small, packed theatre added to the claustrophobia of the world of the play and made it possible to enjoy the facial expressions of the actors as well as feel their energy. Debbie Morgan has used the contemporary world of scything austerity cuts (“our NHS is down to its bare bones” she wrote recently) to resonate with the helter-skelter ride to austere death. And that’s what art should do: speak of life and death and the morality of good decision-making, whilst also reflecting the current pre-occupations of the writer’s time of living. If you missed it first time round, be sure to get your tickets for the Unity Theatre performances in autumn (Friday 8th and Saturday 9th September 2017).
The Punter is funny and rude; thought-provoking and life-enhancing.