Writer: Melissa Bubnic
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
A mother’s love can be a wonderful thing but occasionally that love can have much darker undertones. For JoJo her life revolves around her nineteen year old son Arty. There’s nothing unusual about that – apart from the fact that Arty hasn’t left the house for three years and, at nineteen years old, is sixty-seven stone and the world’s largest teenager.
As a TV production team film Arty’s countdown to potentially live saving bariatric surgery it’s clear that Arty’s reasons for ending up this size are complex but also that his mother’s over compensating love may have much to do with his rapidly expanding waistline.
Surrounded by the remnants of countless junk food meals, Arty sits enthroned on a pile of pizza boxes, chocolate bars and fish and chip wrappers. It’s a comfort blanket for the teenager, but one that in his deepest dreams he wishes to escape. His fantasy moments take him off to the exotic lands he’s seen in the movies, to adventures his ample frame currently forbid.
When a job centre worker enters his sugar-coated world to try and coax him back into the world of work, Arty sees more than a chance of a shining new job.
Melissa Bubnic’s bitter -sweet script will ring bells of recognition to any who have watched the countless TV documentaries about the growing (quite literally) trend of Super Morbidly Obese teenagers. It takes us inside the reasons many get to be the size they are but also looks at the exploitive nature of these so called ‘educational’ documentaries – programmes that instead create the modern day example of the old circus freak show.
Bubnic doesn’t claim to have the answers to this still largely understood problem. The characters she draws are complex and, although many of them are partial victims of some external forces, none are wholly sympathetic or likeable. JoJo the mother may be doing the best she can but are her motives self-satisfying? Louise, the prim and proper civil servant, may be trying to help but is it for Arty or for her own career advancement? Even the troubled teenager himself may, on some level, actually enjoy the cocooned world his condition provides.
Justin Audibert’s direction is suitably fast-paced for a piece set against the backdrop of a TV production. Characters come in and out of focus to mirror the TV camera lens close up and Audibert manages to balance the dream like inner monologues of Arty with the grimness of actually reality.
This ability to shift focus is beautifully supported by Lily Arnold’s detritus filled set. Junk food cartons piled high to providing the castle ramparts of Arty’s world. It may seem to be a world of chaos but there are plenty of surprises hidden in the chaos to create moments of pure theatrical magic.
As the troubled teen James Dryden is on stage throughout and, although confined to his armchair for much of the piece, gives a mesmerising and richly detailed reading. This is a young man on the verge of adulthood but in many ways still a young child, full of innocence and self-doubt and one that Dryden captures perfectly. We’re soon drawn into Arty’s world and find ourselves rooting for him, even when he’s proving to be his own worst enemy.
Pivotal though the rôle is, this is no one-man show and there’s ample support across the four strong company. Robin Weaver’s mother is a carefully constructed mix of love and control, while Alison O’Donnell’s Louise breaks out from her procedure ruled life to give the troubled family a wakeup call of such intensity that the audience breaks into spontaneous applause. Rhoda Ofofi-Attah’s TV producer may be the most thinly drawn of the characters but is portrayed with appropriate slyness.
Beached marks the Marlowe Theatre’s début as a producing venue and it’s an impressive start. There’s a perfect balance of issue led drama and dark comedy to provide plenty for audiences to both think about but also enjoy. The show is already transferring to London’s Soho Theatre but this is a production that could have a long and successful future touring across the country – even if it does make you feel guilty for that extra chocolate biscuit or the big cream cake you craftily had with your coffee!
Runs until 1 November then at Soho Theatre 4-23 November