Underneath – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Pat Kinevane
Director: Jim Culleton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

“We need beauty, all of us…How we flock to be around the beautiful ones”. It may only be skin-deep, but Pat Kinevane’s new play Underneath considers the effect of beauty and modern expectations of perfection on individuals who are far from physically perfect. Showing at the Soho Theatre, Kinevane considers what it means to be ostracised from society solely based on looks, the long-term damage it can do and, topically, whether we all need to be a bit kinder to each other.

tell-us-block_editedAwakened from a black and gold draped tomb in Cobh, County Cork, “Her” returns to tell the un-beautiful story of her life. Disfigured as an eight-year-old by a freak lightning bolt, Her grows up with jeers and taunts from fellow pupils, living almost entirely in isolation because of her appearance. Weaving together anecdotes from her childhood and adult life, Underneath is a story of life, death and everything in between.

Following on from the success of Kinevane’s last play Silent about homelessness, he applies many of the same techniques to his latest production, integrating straightforward monologue with audience interaction, physical theatre and sound design to create a compelling tale about perceptions of ugliness. Kinevane’s storytelling is always expressive, and although Underneath suffers from one too many digressions, the take-away messages about tolerance and acceptance are clear.

One of Kinevane’s key skills is using abstract forms as a new way into discussing large societal issues, and here the visual aspects of the show are the most striking. Telling the story from the perspective of a dead person will be a familiar technique to fans of film noir that, despite knowing the end, helps to create interest in how they got there, as well as giving the protagonist a greater freedom to know more than they could have with a living single-perspective.

Dressed in a shabby black cat suit and with black painted hands and face, designed by Mariad Whisker, Her is frequently draped in gold lamé fabrics that are strewn across the stage, used to create outfits, accessories and the occasional Egyptian queen – the overall effect is somewhere between X-Men‘s Mystique and Joan Collins. The black and gold theme suitably reflects the drab versus glamour ideas of beauty that Kinevane is focused on, while he has a silent film star understanding of dark and light, using the shadows to create tone and texture in the show.

Kinevane’s performance is largely conversational, almost a stream of consciousness, which draws the audience in, although some of the interactive sections fall a little flat as they depend on the willingness of whoever he picks on to engage. While the episodic nature of the story swings back and forth in time quite fluidly, some of the diversions are less meaningful than they could be – including a repeated section mocking the TV show A Place in the Sun – and are perhaps a little too tangential to the core points about attractiveness.

What Kinevane does best is to pull a switch on the audience whose laughter is quickly halted by a skewering point about society that hits hard. There is plenty of observational comedy but this is balanced by the deeply felt emotional pain and loneliness of living with a less than perfect physical shape, and the sudden changes of tone are when Underneath is at its most effective.

Although it feels a tad overlong, the combination of techniques that make-up Kinevane’s distinctive style make for an entertaining and meaningful evening. This touring production arrives at a time when ideas of tolerance, acceptance and diversity are under threat, offering a useful reminder of the effects of judgement and the complex consequences it can have under the surface.  

Runs until 17 December 2016 | Image: Patrick Redmond

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