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My Favourite Place in the Whole Wide World

Ian Townsend
1974 Productions
Hope Mill Theatre

Ben Kenzie as J and Claire Eden as Ruth
Claire Eden as Ruth
Ben Kenzie as J

After his award-winning All The Bens was reworked into an audio play, Manchester playwright Ian Townsend has returned to the stage with his longest play to date—and probably his longest title.

This is a play of two very different halves: in the first, the two characters narrate their own stories of their childhood traumas, and just before the interval, we are given a hint of what is to come in act 2. This is where the storytelling of act 1 is put into a context, showing how the characters meet and come to be telling their stories.

The lights go up on orange and black staging blocks and costumes from director / designer James Schofield and two people facing one another, suggestive of a therapy session in which one, J (Ben Kenzie), begins by turning the play's title into a question. J goes back to when he was 5, sitting in a tree in the rain—an image to which he often returns for comfort. This seems to relate to his later obsession with showering, although this is partly due to his grandad's friend, Sid, who smells of smoke and whisky and keeps touching him.

The most significant event in his story is when a cool lad at school—Danny Burns, or Burnsy—becomes his friend; they start smoking by the bins, then things become sexual, but while J's feelings grow more intense, Burnsy shuns him and starts seeing girls instead, and J's life collapses.

Ruth story, interspersed with J's, begins in her favourite place in the whole wide world: aged 3, in the car with her dad, singing. Then suddenly, her dad isn't there any more and she has to live with an auntie who isn't really an auntie but the mother of a friend, who is soon no longer a friend. She is described as "big for her age", but of course the kids have crueler ways of referring to her weight. Her outlet is singing, until her contribution to a talent contest is sabotaged by a malicious fellow pupil.

Her significant event is meeting Mo, who comes into the shop where she has a Saturday job and enjoys talking to her, whatever she looks like, and they grow close, even though he is gay.

By act 2, they have both done something terrible that has resulted in someone's death and have been paying the price since, and now they are neighbours.

Their relationship, however, is an odd one, and perhaps unlikely; why would Ruth not call the police as she threatens on someone she doesn't know who breaks into her flat—once while she is asleep—and uses her shower without permission? Why does J deliberately antagonise a neighbour whom he also seems to want to befriend? And what's with the buckets of water?

In payment for his showers, he fills her bath with buckets of water from his own flat, and the conversation is broken up by his trips back and forth. The buckets are mimed and the emptying is represented by an animation on the screens at the back (projection by John Ormerod, connected4sound) so it doesn't take too long, but this still makes the scene rather fragmented.

Of course, by the end, they both reveal their darkest secrets that explain why J was in prison and why Ruth hasn't left her flat for nine years and find some kind of solace in one another. While I wasn't entirely convinced by some aspects of their relationship, the ending works well.

There is some lovely storytelling in this play, and it's good to see that Townsend has used the interval creatively to write two very different acts rather than just to break up a longer play. There are two very strong performances, slick direction. and nice touches with the projection and the sound and lighting designs (the latter from Ella Kay and Andy Greenwood respectively). Definitely worth seeing.

Reviewer: David Chadderton