The Mutant Man – The Space, London

Writer: Christopher Bryant
Director: Heather Fairbairn
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Gender neutral characters are increasingly recognised in popular culture. Recently the Etcetera Theatre hosted the play Boy Stroke Girl, while one of the analysts in season two of Billions identifies as non-binary, so Christopher Bryant’s new play The Mutant Man showing at The Space feels very timely. What unites the characters in these various dramas is their normality, the ordinary experiences of love, loss, greed and fear that typify human responses regardless of gender.

tell-us-block_editedAs the play opens, a trial is underway and Harry stands in the dock accused of killing his wife, Annie. But Harry is biologically a woman (Eugenia) who has lived as a man for several years and the reasons why are told in a series of flashbacks and layered memories, which build up to the reason for Annie’s death. Based on a true story, Bryant’s play attempts to unpick the concept of gender expectation and highlight the series of difficult choices for those like Harry.

Told as a duologue with two actors sharing the main role using microphones, video projection, dramatic re-enactment and flashback The Mutant Man owes a huge debt to the work of theatre company Complicite, whose distinctive style seems to be the model for director Heather Fairbairn’s interpretation. In fact, Fairbairn has worked with Schaubuhne Berlin, who recently collaborated with Complicite on Beware of Pity, while co-lead Matthew Coulton has appeared in a previous Complicite production.

And Bryant’s complex script is full of the same themes that are a hallmark of a Complicite show, including the deceptive and changeable nature of personal memory, the codification of history and the layers of self. Where Simon McBurney’s company use glass boxes, Bryant’s story uses plastic evidence bags to change the meaning of an object from everyday item to revered artefact, as bits of Harry / Eugenia’s life are presented to the court evoking fragmented aspects of the past.

Where Bryant’s work is unique is in the twisting nature of the narrative so the audience is never sure what’s coming next; aspects of past and future are cunningly intertwined. Some of the turns are genuinely surprising and, although the ultimate outcome of the trial is predictable and unsatisfying – albeit presumably true – the fluidity of character throughout is intriguing and the audience must be fully attentive to keep track of whose perspective is being relayed.

The actors gender-swap their roles, with Coulton primarily playing Eugenia with Clementine Mills as Harry, while both also perform a variety of other characters including Annie, Eugenia / Harry’s daughter Josephine and the lawyers at the trial. Both do well to evoke a large cast, although occasionally the frantic movement of microphones, lights and props as they speak distracts from what they’re saying; perhaps another pair of hands on stage might be needed, while the stop-start nature of the action disrupts the flow.

The semi-staged approach to The Mutant Man feels very current and, while dealing sensitively with the issues of gender self-identification, the technical accomplishment mostly enhances rather detracts from it. Bryant’s play does connect effectively with the darkness and danger of Harry’s life and frequently flips a situation to show the audience it wasn’t what it seemed. The message is clear: people may seem one thing on the surface but underneath they might be something else entirely; acceptance is all.

Runs until: 8 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

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