Writer and Director: Jamie Eastlake
Much of working class life is aimless, tedious, absurd, and predictable. So, unfortunately, is much of the theatre about it. There are moments of great profundity in Jamie Eastlake’s Gerry and Sewell, where the innocent dreams of two young men from a council estate meet cold, harsh reality. But they are invariably followed by a grown woman panting creepily with a dog hand puppet on her arm, and a joke about Kevin Keegan. An unusual problem arises from this back-and-forth tonal tennis: it’s very difficult to take this comedy seriously.
The titular heroes of Gerry and Sewell are two working-class lads from Gateshead. They like chicken nuggets, Newcastle United, and petty crime. Sewell, a larger-built lad, eats a lot of chips and has one GCSE. Gerry (Dean Logan) dreams that one day, they’ll make enough money from selling scrap to afford tickets to see Newcastle play. Did I mention they’re poor? And that they’re from Gateshead? And that one of them is fat? Bear those things in mind, because they’ll get mentioned. Consistently.
This level of stereotyping, right out of the gate, sets the play up in a place it’ll struggle to leave. Like its hopeless protagonists, clutching at a trash heap, hoping to pull enough discarded material together to make something worth watching, Eastlake throws fat joke after slam poem after onstage guitar-playing at us, hoping it’ll all pay off in the end.
And the tragic thing is, it definitely could have done.
There are some truly beautiful, affecting moments here. One particular monologue, generic enough in its first utterance, becomes breathtakingly raw when repeated later on. The set is magnificent, constructed from broken bits of Metro train, immersing us in a neglected, litter-strewn, almost post-apocalyptic vision of Gateshead. The strained optimism of Gerry against all odds, the purity of his humble ambition, was by turns heart-warming and heart-breaking to watch. And the play had the rest of the audience on its feet, cheering and waving black-and-white flags by the end.
There is a good play somewhere, buried beneath the disposable filler gags. But Eastlake seems hesitant to decide what it is: plotline after plotline jumps out of the heap, vying for dramatic weight, but most of the heavy drama that fills the latter scenes collapses under the frail supports the first half has provided. By the end, the heroes are more or less unchanged.
Two performances provide polar opposite visions of what this play could have been: Jack Robertson, who played Sewell, and Becky Clayburn, who played… nearly everyone (and everything) else.
To begin with Clayburn: given her unenviable task of playing a vast range of wildly different characters, it is no surprise that her performance feels like it’s trying too hard. Clayburn is cast as (in no particular order), a teacher (who she plays wonderfully), a drug addicted young woman (also a marvellous performance), an old lady (this is where the trouble starts), an abusive father (who inexplicably has a condition that makes him grunt loudly after every sentence), a dog (played with such enthusiasm as to be distractingly uncomfortable), and the… spirit of Tyneside?
This latter role, a vaguely-defined personification of Tyneside, is so cringe-inducing as to provoke the question: is this meant to be self-parody? Every so often, the main drama of the play will fade out, pausing for an interlude of bizarre slam-poetry about the colour of the Tyne river. Clayburn contorts herself, shifting continually, croaking rhyming couplets into a microphone… and that’s when she’s not playing a ridiculous caricature of Gateshead youths, shouting with a deep voice that the reason she’s so violent is because of old Maggie Thatcher. Absolutely all of the slam poetry could be cut from the play, without changing anything else, and it would be considerably more engaging.
Jack Robertson is this play’s saving grace. His performance is phenomenally understated, a much-needed source of emotional restraint that we can cling to against the thrashing caricatures that populate the rest of this play. His wry smile, slower movements, and occasional improvised jibes at the set, allow us to enjoy the play’s comedy in spite of itself. There is a real warmth and humanity to the performance, enough that this one-dimensional character feels like he’s got much more going on beneath the surface; but Robertson’s performance shines because we can see the actor beneath the surface, too – an actor just here to do the job, but mess about a little bit along the way. The real comic peak of the production is the scene in which Robertson occupies the stage alone.
Like this play, we’ll end where we started: this play is an oversimplified, over-the-top portrait of working-class Gateshead life. It’s peppered with powerful, hilarious moments, but the padding in-between is hard to look past.
Runs until 18 November 2023