I Am Thicker Than Water
Written and Performed by Simon Farnaby
Simon Farnaby is a charming young man, with a remarkable candour, relaxed humour, and a finely chiselled, almost patrician face. All of this is extremely good for sustaining his frankness and engaging his audience for a one-man-show in which he deals with matters deeply personal. As the title indicates this is a tale of family connections. From his granddad he has inherited two traits: an addiction to the gee-gees and a genetic heart condition.
The former, he informs us cheekily, led him to bet 200 quid of his Arts' Council funding on a pony named Look to the Future at his local bookies, suitably situated just forty-five yards (I'd swear he'd measured it) from own his front door. "You can't get more local than that!" And on a screen he showed us pictures to prove it.
This four-legged candidate for the knacker's yard was blissfully unaware it was carrying tax-payers' cash on its back beside its jockey, and cantered home at its own leisurely pace to be last past the post. He chose this nag, he informs, us through an elaborate system, partly advice from a sporting paper, but mostly a complex superstitious ritual of the type often practiced by compulsive gamblers. The multiple screen on the back wall, contained in picture frames, showed us images of pages of 'form', expert advice, the track, clips from new items as he led us, with a trickle of adrenaline in his blood, the aftermath of the gambler's rush, to the final image: the backside of the horse at the tail end of the race.
This is an interesting, if not exactly riveting, introduction to the gambler's mindset. But, in this performance it is the preamble to family drama. Granddad, quite a handsome bloke from his photograph with a pretty young wife destined to live a tragic life, squandered his earnings on drink and gambling (there is a photo of him drunkenly betting on the weight of a brick) so that his sons, both named after winning horses, were brought up in poverty. And in their childhood photos they do look like a couple of grimey, if grinning, ragamuffins.
Nonetheless, father Gideon and Uncle Robin seem to have negotiated their way through the education system. Gideon moves to London, eschewing any contact with his father, to become a stockbroker in the City, and work like a slave to establish himself, to provide for his family as his own father never did. Robin becomes a primary school teacher and stays at home to look after the wayward father after their mother's death.
The real Simon Farnaby is the narrator of this tale in which over time the genetic heart condition linking all male family members is revealed. And he transforms himself effortlessly into an amusing and touching Robin, as well as a more staid, but ineffectual father Gideon. He even gives us a great monologue in the persona of a horse.
There are some profound insights working here. Both sons, like so many children of compulsive gambler's whose illness ruins family life, have a heightened sense of responsibility. They are both intent on doing their best, but remain victims of their childhood environment.
Robin is endearing and all too serious in his desire to be a good teacher and resolve the problems of childhood for his pupils. Farnaby's depiction of him is funny in a very sweet way.
Gideon over-compensates to the extent that he sleeps in his office in order to generate the money that will give his wife and child, Simon, prosperity, so that, ultimately, he misses the point of family well-being, and fails to be a good father and husband.
While it is never mentioned, both, one feels, are already dead, victims of the congenital disease. And Farnaby is sharing with us a period of reflection in which he is coming to terms with an inheritance that is deadly in more ways than one. And, through this process, he has learned to love and understand them warts and all.
Recently, the film Sylvia has brought confessional poetry back into focus, but confessional drama of this ilk is even more difficult to accomplish. Farnaby takes a risk in sharing something precious with us and he does it with a quiet dignity and measured humour that I appreciated wholeheartedly. He shares a heart condition and complex set of obsessions with three generations of men.
Recently, I heard a joke. Men are like mascara. They run at the first sign of emotion. It is a staid old cliché with some genuine basis in female experience, but Farnaby, in delineating the characters of Robin and Gideon, is exploring this issue of masculinity, exposing the supposed dominance of rationality. I felt so strongly for Gideon, failing because he tried so hard to be the provider for his family that his own father had never been. Happily, there is a twist of events and Gideon makes a break for a better life. And Farnaby, through his clever introduction, never puts himself in a position of superior knowledge. And I felt enough for Robin to want to shout out and tell him that he had his own life to lead.
This is a performance with great potential. And I say that deliberately. As of yet, I feel it is unfinished. There were moments when Farnaby touched on a situation that could have led to more depth: like when Gideon finally bets a lot of money on a horse and loses. The implications inherent on the deadly congenital heart condition that links all these men was not explored in such a way that I could fully comprehend the emotional impact of that on these men, including Simon himself.
Perhaps, for Simon Farnaby, this is so confessional, so emotional, in dealing with connections that shape a life, he is still reticent. There is matter here for drama that is at the root of our social well-being. Farnaby is making an in-road into that area with frankness and theatrical skill. I hope he continues to explore in this rich vein of human experience and share his mature insights with us.
"I Am Thicker Than Water" runs until 1st May
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher