How to be a Man

Jon Coleman
Paper People Theatre
Alphabetti Theatre

John Coleman in flight
John Coleman hugs a dummy

Jon Coleman's one-man show has a come-on title. And some female members of the audience, however right on, could be heard to give tiny gasps as he entered wearing only a small pair of briefs, soon after which he pulled on a tight-fitting satin dress. He does spend most of the show in male gear, incidentally.

He may not have chosen this same entrance had he been short, fat and bald, rather than healthily hirsute and of fine physique, but was that maybe a point itself?

The show, directed by Josh Coates, is different on many counts. No actor has ever handed me a glass of whisky half-way through, (I'm not exactly sure why, but naturally I felt obliged to drink it) nor have I seen any actor fight two shop window dummies in a performance. The dummies came off worse.

Via the modern wonder of electronics, these dummies do manage to engage Jon Coleman in conversation and the motive was to illustrate the combustibility of male anger. Using a variety of anecdotes, reflections, historical quotes, costumes and stand-up techniques, Coleman builds up the picture of modern man, his crises, his insecurity, his inability to root himself in current society.

As he confesses early on, the perspective is from a white, middle-class, straight, western man, so it has its limitations, but which of us doesn't?

There are still things to say. At one stage, he pulls on a one-piece Superman outfit and, even as he adjusted the knickers, this sartorial touch brought the realisation of how ridiculous and infantile the whole concept of the superhero is.

Elsewhere, he tells the story (real or not we don't know) of how he and a group of youthful friends, in a bizarre piece of male bonding, masturbated jointly onto a biscuit, which I'm not sure if they then ate or not.

Throughout the show, he picks up various props, props and outfits plus a soft dummy, from three costume rails. The design is by Simone Romaniuk. One of the most comic episodes is his reading from what looks like a Victorian book on masculinity—the etiquette of male hugging and its "accepted" limits.

We are reminded that, despite our enlightened outlook, we are still often hidebound in our gender expectations and probably will be until a man can openly walk down the street in high heels without a second glance. But do we want that? This question is left open.

This is a collage show, an assembly of viewpoints and perspectives rather than a single-minded vision. At its best, it's funny, endearing and physical while elsewhere it can seem a little slow in making its point.

Jon Coleman is an assured actor, though perhaps a little too comfortable in the piece (he has been touring it for a long time and the tour has now come to an end). A touch more painful vulnerability in the humour would nudge it along, though maybe that cheesecake entrance makes such a stance difficult.

The show was performed at Alphabetti, Newcastle's only real alternative theatre, which will soon be forced to move when its intriguing subterranean city centre base falls victim to the developers. Alphabetti not only stages but also commissions new theatre work of a kind not always easy to catch elsewhere so here's to its rapid rebirth.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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