Monday, 28 January 2013

Theatre review: Gruesome Playground Injuries

There's nothing metaphorical about the title of Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, receiving its UK premiere at the Gate in a new collaboration with the National Theatre Studio. When Kayleeri and Doug meet for the first time aged 8 at a Catholic school, they're both in the nurse's office, she for a stomach-ache, he for having "broken his face." Joseph's play follows their relationship over the next 30 years, jumping around in time - the action always jumps 15 years forward, then 10 years back, from the preceding scene - and always in a clinic or hospital where one or the other needs care of some kind. It's usually the reckless, clumsy Doug, who's come to believe that Kayleeri's touch can heal his wounds, or at least soothe the pain. Although their friendship survives in some form or other from the ages of 8 to 38, they're not always that good at being there for each other.

One of the things the Gate's known for is the innovative use of the space, and it's in evidence again here as designer Lily Arnold has come up with a very unusual traverse, with a slight rake and its sides at an angle that means the audience isn't quite facing the action head-on. It has a disorienting effect and I was worried about whether it would get irritating trying to catch all the action without having to twist around in my seat but director Justin Audibert has somehow managed to block things so the unconventional staging never gets in the way of the story.

Mariah Gale and Big Favourite Round These Parts Felix Scott are brilliantly cast (Scott perhaps a bit too well-cast as the accident-prone Doug: One of his many bandages is real, as he broke a couple of fingers on press night; and as he returned to the stage for a post-show Q&A tonight, he managed to walk face-first into the set.) Scott has a glint in his eye that's perfect for the none-too-bright daredevil, and an eternal optimism that powers the pair through problems beyond just their physical injuries. And Gale's Kayleeri is a tough cookie on the surface with a self-harming secret, who brings a raw emotional energy to the intimate space.

The play's structure means regular costume changes, which the actors do on stage (both Scott and Gale spend a lot of time in their underwear, which probably qualifies the show as having something for everyone.) The actors put a huge amount of personality into these lengthy sections between scenes in which, accompanied by music that hints at the tone of the scene to come, they not only dress and undress themselves and each other, but have to apply and remove various wounds in the form of makeup and bandages. Although Audibert and the cast have integrated them into the action as well as could be done, they still drag on and with so many of them in a comparatively short play I did find these changes to overwhelm the production's pace.

Gruesome Playground Injuries comes across as a decent play if not a classic, with some obvious flaws and irritating aspects balanced out by the occasional poetic side to the writing. But the production's certainly worth seeing for the flair and inventiveness being shown in direction, design and performances that elicit laughs and maybe a few tears.

Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph is booking until the 16th of February at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

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