Writer: Luke Barnes
Director: Steven Atkinson
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
The power of theatre to take its audience down unexpected avenues is one of its greatest assets. Initially Luke Barnes’ Bottleneck may seem a feisty look at teenage angst and the trauma of growing up in Liverpool in the late 1980s. On the verge of his 15th birthday, Greg is obsessed with football, and would do anything to scrimp together the £14.50 for a ticket to the big football match. It’s the simple pleasures that entertain Greg, football is the escape route from the trauma of school and girls still a largely mysterious force to be feared and shunned in favour of childhood playground.
As Greg’s birthday dawns, the elusive football ticket is in his hand and on, 15 April 1989, he finally heads off to the match. Its only then, when the significance of that date and the fateful football match that took place on that day does it dawn that Barnes is leading us down a different and decidedly darker path, as we explore the awful devastation of the Hillsborough disaster.
Perhaps the deaths of 96 football fans is too much to comprehend but by focusing in on an individual that we’ve come to know, Barnes provides a conduit to understand the true human cost, not just of the victims but to their friends and family left behind.
It’s a masterly piece of literary construction that shifts gear subtly as we move from comedy to despair.
Steven Atkinson’s direction is pitched perfectly, slowly unravelling Barnes’ narrative while fleshing out Greg’s character. It’s a balancing act to keep the comedy naturalistic without descending into caricature but it’s played with total conviction that allows any laughs to grow organically.
Of course a script, however well written, is nothing without a performer – especially so in a solo show and much of the success of the piece is down to James Cooney’s charismatic portrayal.
Initially a dynamo of constant energy, Cooney’s transformation mirrors the script’s subtle darkening, becomes more reflective as hope turns to fear and then transforms into rage. There’s real connection with the audience as Cooney ensures we follow every step of his journey through the highs and the lows.
There’s absolute despair but there’s also the slightest glimmer of hope as Greg continues to come to terms with his survivor guilt.
As Hillsborough returns to the nation’s consciousness, Bottleneck proves to be a timely reflection on the tragedy that day in Sheffield but, wider than that, it provides us with a gritty, moving and emotionally challenging look at lost dreams. A powerful and thought-provoking hour’s theatre.