Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Coming of age stories tend to be a bit ponderous as if to reassure audiences that all involved take the subject very seriously and intend to treat it with sympathy. With Absolute Certainty?, however, writer-director Stewart Campbell goes against the trend and takes an irreverent approach to the subject.
Teenager Finn is studious and on the verge of leaving home for university. His mother, realising she was gay, left the family some time ago so Finn currently resides with his embittered father and brother, Deano, who lives for booze, drugs and the occasional empty shag. Homophobic Deano is blissfully unaware that his brother and his best friend Lee may be developing strong feelings for each other.
As the title suggests, Stewart Campbell is not afraid of ambiguity—little in the play is simple or straightforward. It is hard to be sure, whether Finn and Lee are gay or just experimenting or even if they actually had sex during their drunken encounter. Deano is incapable of speaking without making an offensive remark about gay people to the extent you begin to wonder if he has something to hide and is protesting that bit too much. It makes for a murky atmosphere perfect for exploring the themes of betrayal and disappointment.
Absolute Certainty? was previously staged as a one-act play at the 2017 Greater Manchester Fringe Festival. The expansion to full-length may not be entirely beneficial. The frequent scene changes where, to the backing of pounding disco music, furniture is rearranged to suggest a move to a different room or the passage of time become wearying. The desperate, drunken lifestyle of Deano and Lee becomes apparent as the play progresses so the wordless montage that opens the play seems redundant. The first act feels like it is simply setting the scene—leading up to the possible encounter between Finn and Lee.
The second act is much stronger with fine character development. Lee, previously presented as fundamentally decent, turns out to have a judgemental view of his friend, raising doubts about how far he can be trusted. The biggest surprise is the character of Deano, who is initially shown as a clichéd bully and bigot but turns out to have a degree of sensitivity and concern for his brother even if it is not articulated. A particularly powerful scene has Deano trying to explain the origins of his father’s homophobia—it is impossible not to feel he is describing himself.
As he is writing about characters who struggle to discuss their feelings, Campbell has many opportunities to explore the comic potential of them trying to communicate. There is a deeply embarrassing sequence of Deano using the facts of life to encourage his brother to take precautions. Strangely, the one character who does not develop is Finn, remaining as enigmatic at the end as he was at the beginning.
Absolute Certainty? is a satisfyingly ambiguous play that refuses to offer easy solutions but may not yet have settled into its new, longer format.
Absolute Certainty? is part of the Turn on Fest: a new LGBTQ+ Festival, hosted by Hope Mill Theatre, in collaboration with Superbia (at Manchester Pride) and Mother’s Ruin.
Reviewer: David Cunningham