Broken Lad – Arcola Outside, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Robin Hooper

Director: Richard Speir

One of the biggest problems with staging theatre in a wooden tent such as the Arcola’s new Covid-safe isn’t the temperature (although, as we head deeper into autumn, that may change) but the leakage of sound from elsewhere. For the most part, that actually works in the favour of Robin Hooper’s new rock Broken Lad. 

Billed as “a subtle examination of masculinity in distress”, the play is set in a rundown room above a rundown pub. The hustle of East London life provides a live underscore for a tale of a once splendid stand-up comedian who has found himself cajoled into making a return to the mic.

Ostensibly the protagonist of the piece, Patrick Brennan’s Phil is a very hard man to like. Despite the support of his best friend Ned (Adrian McLoughlin) and the fan-turned-brief-girlfriend Ria (Yasmin Paige) he is reluctant to engage in anything approaching reasonable behaviour towards either. Recently evicted, he can’t even couch surf because he’s so horrible to the few friends he has that nobody will take him in.

The most powerful element of Hooper’s script is looking at how a life of disappointment is compounded by one’s peers doing well. A lot of Phil’s bitterness comes because his contemporaries broke into television and earned enough to have comfortable lives. 

But the bigger elements are familial: an initially supportive relationship with his son, Dave Perry’s ebullient estate agent Josh, seems to provide a crumb of comfort and a possible foothold back to a decent life. But then it emerges that Ria is, in fact, Josh’s girlfriend and the couple are back together after a breakup – and the sight of a spark between his father and his lover is enough to threaten Josh’s sense of any father-son bond.

Hooper’s grasp of the interfamilial strife – further amplified by the arrival of Phil’s glamorous ex-wife Liz (Carolyn Backhouse) and Josh’s reveal that he wants to give up the business life she encouraged him to enter and follow his father’s footsteps in comedy – is stronger than the trappings of stand-up he brings to the main action. 

We do briefly see a section of Phil’s comeback routine – artfully staged by director Richard Speir through a window, Brennan’s back to us throughout, emphasising that we are only glimpsing the comedian from backstage. One does get a glimpse of someone who still knows how to be “on” under a spotlight.

But while one might expect a comedian’s offstage life to not quite sparkle in quite the same way, one would hope for slightly more inspiring dialogue. Most perplexing is McLoughlin’s Ned, the friend who acts as a de facto personal assistant to Phil and who, because he is gay, everyone assumes must do so out of unrequited love. The persistent niggling micro-aggressions thrown Ned’s way seem to be just accepted by all, and McLoughlin’s largely flat portrayal gives no clue how the character really feels about how he fits into Phil’s life.

And that is pretty much the feeling to the overall piece. Perry gets a moment of catharsis in Act II (possibly hinting that the title Broken Lad is applicable as much to him as to his father) – although on press night, the unintentional diegetic sound from outside the tent did mean a moment of cruel silence was broken with a raucous rendition of “Happy Birthday”.

As an examination of masculinity in distress, Hooper’s work falls far short. As a sad tale of a family long since having come apart at the seams, it is more successful.

Continues until 6 November 2021


The Reviews Hub Score

So-so tale of a father-son split

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