Friday, 14 August 2015

Theatre review: Penetrator

An early Anthony Neilson play gets revived by recent Mountview graduates at the Hope Theatre. He's a writer whose style you can never second-guess and, first seen in 1994, Penetrator was called part of the "in-yer-face" movement - a term nobody involved in it actually seems to like. Well, probably Ravenhill. Neilson's play features the strong language and constant threat of violence associated with the movement, although while elliptical in nature it's not wilfully obscure, clearly identifying a crisis in masculinity, insecurity and an attitude to sex heavily influenced by pornography. Slackers Max (Alexander Pardey) and Alan (Jolyon Price) share a small flat, spending much of their time getting stoned. Recently dumped by his girlfriend, Max is the slob of the pair, pretending his ex never existed while wanking to porn any chance he gets.

Alan is prissier, a vegetarian and doesn't seem to have had a girlfriend as long as Max has known him, leading to the inevitable gay jokes from his flatmate.

Alan also still owns two teddy-bears (apparently bears are a theme this week) and has retained a child-like attachment to them. The pair's routine of drugs and tea is interrupted by the arrival of Max's friend Tadge (Tom Manning,) just released from the army and with an inconsistent story about what happened. What he does seem convinced about is that he needed to flee a mysterious group called The Penetrators, whose purpose is to get him into a dark room and put things up his arse.

It's a less comical anal fixation than the one Neilson wrote about in 2013's Narrative, and one whose true meaning isn't hard to figure out, but it's an effectively-written look at the insecurities surrounding certain men's sexuality, and despite the heightened atmosphere a believable one. Phil Croft's production uses a text that's clearly been updated since 1994, with references to Julian Assange, ISIS instead of, I'm guessing, the IRA, and Max watching porn online rather than, presumably, on dodgy tapes in the original. It means Penetrator feels like it could have been written recently, and it voices concerns about how pornography shapes us more coherently and entertainingly than the turgid We Want You To Watch could ever dream of managing.

Up until the arrival of Tadge, the play takes its time establishing what it's about, but Croft has a cast likeable and energetic enough to keep us entertained while Neilson gets to his point. Price conveys both Alan's vulnerability and the suggestion that there might be something disingenuous about his innocence, Pardey makes Max appealing despite his grossness, and Manning has one of the best terrifying death-glares this side of Anna Calder-Marshall. Worth being seen by more than the small crowd it drew tonight. (Although I did enjoy the usher advising me that the best seats are in the front two rows. THERE ARE ONLY TWO ROWS.)

Penetrator by Anthony Neilson is booking until the 22nd of August at the Hope Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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