Robin Hooper’s new play is about men in the midst of a crisis of confidence. At its centre is Phil, a middle-aged stand-up comedian, once a Saturday night TV regular but now dumped by his manager. He hasn’t worked for six months and has just been made homeless, thrown out by his landlord because of his rent arrears. Yet tonight he has the chance of a modest comeback: a one-off gig at the Albion pub that has been arranged by his son Josh’s girlfriend.
Young Josh has his problems too. Either could be the titular "broken lad". He’s doing well as an estate agent but dreams of success in his father’s line, though so far his performances seem confined to filming himself on his own phone. Could he make it? He and girlfriend Ria had a break-up. Are they really together again? He wants to marry her but has a nagging (and justifiable) suspicion that she’s had an affair with his dad.
Patrick Brennan does an excellent job in presenting the self-obsessed, derelict Phil who arrives in the grotty upper room he’s given as a dressing room in baggy shorts and with his belongings stuffed into a holdall. What he doesn’t get any chance to show is the charisma that would have got Ria to sleep with him. It’s easy to see why his businesslike, successful wife Liz (Carolyn Backhouse) divorced him and Josh felt his dad gave him little attention while growing up, but a brief glimpse of of him in performance, a riff on male impotence presented as it might have been seen from backstage, doesn’t begin to suggest why Josh idolised him.
We have to guess what Phil once was through the devotion of Ned, an older gay friend who seems to be Phil’s self-appointed assistant. Ned must have fallen for him when Phil was more charismatic and has carried an (unrequited) torch for him ever since. Adrian McLoughlin makes outspoken Ned very likeable, the one character without hang-ups, his innocent excitement at making a geriatric connection on a dating app totally convincing.
In Dave Perry’s Josh, we get the young man’s uncertainty, we don’t see the smooth, successful estate agent (perhaps that’s an act he puts on with a smart suit), a role his mother pushed him into, with him it is women who have the upper hand. But what is Yasmin Paige’s Ria really after? What is her relationship with BBC staffer Julia whom she has brought along to see Phil’s act?
Richard Spier’s direction can’t hide the contrivance with which Broken Lad manipulates its characters' comings and goings to create a series of confrontations, but it makes those confrontations lively.
The funny man whose life isn’t funny is an old genre here used to represent more general male mid-life crisis plus a strong dose of father-son rivalry and a rather clichéd suggestion that women handle these things better. There are moments when you get fed up with its characters, but if Broken Lad isn’t exactly uplifting, it does leave things open for a more positive future.
At Arcola Outside, neighbourhood noise makes amplifying the actors a necessity. The sound system is better than on my last visit, though still not perfect, and helped by a cast who speak clearly, but as the weather gets colder, be prepared to keep your coat on.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton