Gala Theatre, Durham
It would be easy to slip into cliché and say that the characters in Arthur McKenzie's three one-man plays are ordinary guys, but it wouldn't be true: although they are in pretty normal occupations - a gym owner in Gymboy, a retired policeman in his allotment in The Plot, and a toilet attendant in Stalls Only - they are quite extraordinary characters. Or perhaps all ordinary guys have something of the extraordinary about them when you really get beneath the skin.
That's certainly what McKenzie does in these plays: he gets beneath the skin of the characters and shows the extraordinary in the ordinary. He does it with considerable humour and deep affection, but doesn't flinch from less attractive side of his protagonists. They all have a darker side and in all of them sadness lies just beneath the surface.
Bob, the Sunbed Soldier, the gym owner in Gymboy, struts his stuff and lays bare his vanity to us, but we soon realise he is desperately clinging to a self-image which is at odds with reality: he, like his mates who are the main users of his gym, is aging. David Whitaker captures the strutting peacock perfectly, gradually revealing the void beneath, occasionally by holding pauses so long that you could feel the audience holding their collective breath. It's a brave thing for any actor to do, but Whitaker's experience tells and it works.
In The Plot Jack McBride plays Frankie Wheatstone, retired policemen, brooding on his long term battle with local criminal Raymond Ignatius Smithson who has taken an allotment a couple of gardens long from his and who he believes was responsble for slashing his leeks in retaliation for Frankie's coming out ahead in their contest. In terms of language alone, this is probably the best written of the three plays, sometimes reaching a depth which is almost poetic. In Frankie, the dark side which all the characters share is nearer the surface and there are elements of his character which are far from attractive but McBride walks the attractive/unattractive tightrope very skillfully and retains our sympathy.
Ernest Holloway Burton, toilet cleaner in the Victorian underground gents toilets in Shakespeare Street, next to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, is a wonderfully camp creation and Donald McBride (no relation to Jack) plays him with gusto, wringing every last opportunity for a laugh from the character, whilst subtlely hinting throughout at the sadness beneath. It was truly a bravura performance which the audience loved.
This is the Gala's second venture into production, directed (as was the first, The Far Corner) by the theatre's director Simon Stallworthy, whose directing credits include work with Hull Truck and the Bolton Octagon. Stallworthy has gathered a veritable NE theatrical dream team for this production and it has paid off handsomely - if you are in the area, it is well worth catching before it ends on 8th July.
Peter Lathan has also interviewed Arthur McKenzie and Simon Stallworthy.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan