Thursday 22 September 2022

Theatre review: Clutch

In one of my unplanned theme weeks, every show I've got booked this week features at least one transgender or non-binary character; in another bit of continuity Geoffrey Aymer, last seen driving an unlicensed minicab in Jitney, stays behind the wheel for Will Jackson's Clutch in the Bush Theatre's Studio space. He plays avuncular driving instructor Max, who offers his new student the first lesson free and won't take it personally if he doesn't come back for more - he isn't to everyone's taste. Max's no-nonsense teaching style tends to border more on the loud and distracting, but Tyler (Charlie Kafflyn) sticks with him, and soon the seemingly timid young man relaxes and shows his cockier side as he starts to improve. Tyler's job is as a techie for touring bands; a driving license will help him get more work, and Max boasts of a 100% first-time pass record.

Coming in under an hour, Clutch is an entertaining but pretty slight study of the characters and their relationship. It opens very strongly, with short comic scenes of the pair establishing their teacher/student dynamic and the mishaps of driving lessons.

Some of these, like Tyler's constantly stalling, will be familiar to anyone who's tried to drive a car. Others are more eccentric, like Max favouring a particular street to teach manoeuvres because that's where all the drug dealers are so nobody parks there, his tendency to be on the phone trying to save his marriage during lessons, or his particularly graphic description of how he wants Tyler to treat the clutch like his new boyfriend would want to be treated in bed. Philip J Morris' production jumps sharply between these almost sketch-like comic scenes, and uses this to make the sudden change in pace demanded when - with Max behind the wheel - they have an accident that takes the play in a more serious direction.

After a time-jump we see Max's business struggling from the bad publicity of the crash, and he asks Tyler to finish their course together, for closure as much as anything. Aymer and Kafflyn establish likeable characters in the funny first half-hour, and while some of the humour does remain throughout, it also helps them maintain a relationship we want to follow as they both confess to harder times. For the most part this is the refreshing kind of story where the character of Tyler is firmly established as trans but it's not a plot point - the closest it comes is when we find out why the older man empathises so easily with the younger one (and there's a fun suggestion that Max's career might be saved by him becoming the go-to driving instructor for Birmingham's queer community.)

Overall Clutch doesn't coalesce into any one major theme - which is fine in the sense that real people's lives aren't just about one thing and the two characters' interactions are sweet and entertaining enough on their own. But it does mean it leaves you wishing the story had a bit more meat on its bones by the time it ends.

Clutch by Will Jackson is booking until the 8th of October at the Bush Theatre's Studio.

Running time: 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Ali Wright.

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