Writer: Harriet Gandy
Director: Isabelle Woolley
Playing at the Camden Fringe, Horsepower, a story of a child dealing with trauma, is loud and brash. Each character is overplayed by Harriet Gandy, and the narrative is confused and oblique. Horsepower’s saving grace is that it has a unique style even if it is hard to watch.
It begins with stand-up, as Desmond (perhaps? it’s hard to work out), a kind of end-of-the-pier Cockney comedian, tells jokes and tries to engage the audience in some awkward banter. Gandy swaggers around the stage, drinking whiskey, clambering on top of trunks, before introducing the story proper, but it’s unclear why Gandy and director Isabelle Woolley have chosen the story-within-a story approach.
Gandy now plays Willie, a young boy who wishes he was a girl, waiting for his mother to come and play with him. It’s doubtful whether she will return to her son as she’s been locked up in her room by her husband for talking about the lake again. Watching grown actors playing children is always fraught with difficulty and unfortunately Gandy doesn’t make it any easier for the audience, and at one point, even plays a child pretending to be a dog.
When Willie gets older, Horsepower is steadier, and we begin to realise that Desmond is Willie’s alter-ego, a personality that he uses as a coping mechanism, helping him escape the bullying of his fellow pupils and get by without the love from his parents. Desmond doesn’t give a f**k, and so Willie is able to survive.
Gandy switches quickly from character to character, but each is as loathsome as the next, and it’s difficult to know whom to blame for Willie’s isolation. With a few references to breast-feeding perhaps the mother is at fault, but even Freud would be stumped to work out this case study.
On the plus side, there’s a sure commitment to the visual, with Gandy not afraid to mess up the stage, transforming the Hens and Chickens’ small space into children’s bedrooms or theatre dressing rooms. And the heightened acting seems to match this bold aesthetic, but a more nuanced strategy would garner better results.
It’s one way to tell a story, but a more practical way to present this tale of anguish and pain may be from a single viewpoint, with the adult Willie looking back on his life, meaning there would be no need to act out his childhood in detail. However, Gandy and Woolley should be commended on not being practical, but this overblown muddle is not the answer.
Reviewed on 22 August 2021
Camden Fringe runs from 2 to 29 August 2021