Guest reviewer: Yana Penrose
We all bear witness to it. Some live it. The inherited struggle which are the expectations of masculinity, the toxic aspects to be more specific. What happens to young working class men who endure that? It’s a battlefield, especially for those who have been spat out of the education system with no prospects. Thankfully, Theatre503 have given space to this narrative so often buried away.
At the top of the play, we find Bobby (played fearlessly by Charles Furness) wandering without purpose through a drab, unidentified Northern town. He’s being half supported, half nagged by a Dad who’s trying his best to encourage Bobby to get a job. Much to his surprise, he does, finding himself a labouring job at the scrapyard of Mike Scofield. However, this new cash in hand job is a disappointment to Bobby’s dad (who happens to be a police officer), so much so he insists that he never returns. Whispers of dodgy dealings scatter Mike’s yard of scrap metal and breeze blocks, designed by Eleanor Bull with a meticulous attention to detail. Her set utilises the small stage of the 503 well, a space that I’ve seen many designers overcrowd and shrink, much to the actors’ detriment.
Unexpectedly, we see Mike take Bobby under his wing, even at times favouring him over his own son Chris (played by Kenny Fullwood, I’ll mention him again later on!). The young boy desperately tries to meet the expectations of such a robust man. He’s the epitome of an alpha male: big, broad, with a booming voice and a thickly grown beard. Add some work boots, a shotgun and you’ve got the perfect representation of a dominant man – in some people’s opinion. “Real strength isn’t about smacking someone, it’s about making them shiver at the mention of your name”. That’s the power Bobby so critically yearns for.
We now see Bobby stuck between desperately trying to please Mike, and keeping his overbearing Dad away from the scrapyard. He wants to impress, and we are subjected to watch his fruitless attempts to please the other men around him. He continues to fail, which causes him to spiral out of control pretty quickly. Acting in ways that left many of the audience members shaking their heads in disbelief, this is where the real downfall occurs. It was frustrating to watch this young boy so full of potential being crazily unaware of his ability to transcend through this hopelessness. But it’s so easy for us all to think that from the outside, isn’t it? The same thing is echoed when we see gang violence on the television. Why not just stop? Well, it’s just not that easy. Phil Ormrod’s sharp script drives that home.
The undoubted stand-out performance is that of Kenny Fullwood, who plays Chris. Kenny possesses such truth and fragility that it was, at times, heartbreaking. It’s hard to believe Isaac Came Home From the Mountain is his theatre debut, and I’m very excited to see where his career takes him.
One thought crossed my mind whilst watching some of the violent scenes. In such a small space, fights and fake punches look exactly that. Fake. Now, we can’t have a play about toxic masculinity without a fight. However, I became worried for the actors’ safety and that burst the bubble for me. I’m not sure how that’s solved, it’s just something to be considered.
My verdict? My hope is that the audiences who get to engage are the ones who need it most: the impressionable, the ones at a fragile tipping point in their lives. To leave it for the regular, London, theatregoing audience would be an enormous pity. Is it too much for this mere theatre reviewer to suggest a tour of this show? A three-year process for the writer deserves even more than the cosy seats of the 503. Let it go to the towns he drew on for inspiration, use their village halls if you must. I honestly believe this show has the chance to bring a lot of young, forgotten men back from the brink.
Isaac Came Home From The Mountain runs at Theatre503 until 2 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.