Adelaide Fringe: Heroin(e) for Breakfast ~ theatre notes

Friday, March 05, 2010

Adelaide Fringe: Heroin(e) for Breakfast

If Britain is as fucked as playwright Philip Stokes claims it is - and there's little reason to disbelieve him - it's trailing some bright trash in its wake. Heroin(e) for Breakfast - winner of the Holden Street Theatre's Edinburgh Award (first prize, presumably, a season at Adelaide's Holden St Theatre) - is a theatrical firework thrown up from the pit of Britain's self delusion. It treads carelessly where angels, quite rightly, fear to go, traversing comedy, meta-theatrical comment, trash culture and tragedy; it dares a cliche here, a flood of bathos there, and never quite trips itself up. In other words, it's rough, it's alive, and it's not to be missed.

For the first five minutes or so it seems to be a frenetic sex comedy set in a squalid flat, where the three inhabitants tup each other like dogs - and with, it seems, about as much feeling. Tommy (Craig McArdle) is smart, arrogant, and inclined to believe he is God's gift to women (or possibly God himself). More, he boasts that he is the embodiment of self-control and libertine freedom: he acts as he chooses without reference to anything but his own desire. McArdle's performance is grotesquely clownish, with an angular physicality that is hilarious, repellent and strangely charismatic.

And he talks. Boy, does he talk. It is a kind of aphasia, as if he can't stop in case he hears what he is saying. At the other end of his endless flow of articulate, intelligently excoriating vanities are the two women in his life - the schoolgirl he's shamelessly fucking, Edie (Kate Daley), who is the younger sister of his ex-girlfriend and flatmate Chloe (Kirsty Green). Chloe remains miserably in love with him, and his bedding Edie has destroyed the relationship between the sisters. But more dominant than either of these women is heroin, here portrayed as a beautiful and sinister Marilyn Monroe (Hayley Shillito), who has long seduced Tommy and into whose deadly arms he lures the two women.

Tommy is the latest and perhaps the most vicious of a long series of British anti-heroes, beginning with John Osborne's Jimmy Porter or Lindsay Anderson's Michael Travis. And like them, he represents what is sick about Britain itself - its delusion, its emotional poverty, its inability to face its own losses, its destructiveness. The play signals its intentions early - a poster of a British bulldog looking suitably Churchillian is hanging on the wall and Tommy spends the early scenes in Union Jack underpants. He is, like all these anti-heroes, a rebel who splutters out like a spent cigarette on the pavement: but not without spitting in the eye of everyone else first. He is too intelligent not to know what he is doing. Worse, he likes it.

Underpinning this play is a savage, bitter anger, and it's this unifying force that brings its several styles and ambitions together into a singular work of theatre. The story of the three junkies follows a predictable course, but in an unpredictable way. For all its savagery, this is not cynical theatre. It's not, either, simply a story about the delusions of junkies: it's equally an attack on the delusions of power, which have their own deadly addiction. It's no accident that Heroine, when she arrives, is American, nor that she keeps spouting Obama slogans of empowerment ("yes, we can!") For Britain now can only taste the lost thrill of Empire through the agency of the United States: and the lure of that power is as disabling and destructive as any drug.

Stokes, who both wrote and directed the play, uses every theatrical trick in the book to manipulate the audience, including lots of smoke - the actors step out of the scene, talk through the fourth wall, abuse or plead with the audience. The performances are all completely fearless and wholly passionate: it would be hard to perform this play with anything less than total commitment, because the whole thing might fall apart.

One of the highlights is the ecstatic embrace of Heroin(e) during an X-Factor style dance number; and after this high, the fable turns dark. But Stokes resists the temptation of moralising; even if Tommy is inclined to moralise at the audience, it's always ambiguous and spiked with deadly irony. The play ends with a tour de force of theatre that runs right at the edge of sentimentality, and somehow (just) gets away with it. Definitely a highlight of the Fringe, and highly recommended. But definitely not for those who are easily offended.

Picture: Craig McArdle and Hayley Shillito in Heroin(e) for Breakfast.

Heroin(e) for Breakfast, written and directed by Philip Stokes. Set by Craig Lomas, costumes by Carley Marsh, lighting by Marie Dalton. With Kate Daley, Kirst Green, Craig McArdle and Hayley Shillito. Horizon Arts, Holden St Theatre, Adelaide Fringe, until March 14.

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