Three plays that examine the male predicament amuse, entertain and energise in equal measure despite the climate of reborn feminism
• Kristian Phillips in Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco. Picture: Tim Morozzo
Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco
Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****
Traverse, Edinburgh ****
I Heart Maths
Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
MEN: can't live with them, can't live without them. There was a time in British theatre – back in the late 1970s heyday of writers like the late Pam Gems, who died earlier this month – when theatre seemed to be swerving away from its traditional patterns of male domination, in writing, direction, and acting. Then in the 1990s, feminism went out of fashion, and it was noticed that harsh and aggressive forms of masculine behaviour had not disappeared from our society; cue the entrance of the "in yer face" theatre movement, which typically featured stages full of young men behaving badly.
And now, we seem poised between a reborn feminism – partly reflected in this spring's powerful female-led season at the Royal Lyceum – and a continuing fascination with the stereotyped male journey from mindless aggression to some kind of wisdom; although there are still, on average, at least three or four male speaking roles in theatre for every female one.
Gary Owen's 2001 play Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco belongs to the end of the in-yer-face decade; but it's a sad truth that ten years on, the social agony it portrays is as acute as ever. The play takes the form of three 40-minute monologues, each one delivered by a 23-year-old man living in a small town in Wales where jobs and cash are in short supply, self-esteem is at rock bottom, and alcohol and drug abuse is through the roof. The first speaker, Crazy Gary, is a beguiling thug, a school bully turned small-town hard man whose response to any thwarting of his will is to beat whoever has crossed him to a pulp. The second is Matthew Melody, an outwardly gentle man with severe mental health problems, and a rich, full fantasy-life as a crooner of Sinatra-style songs, and a beloved child of God.
Then finally there's Russell, the ordinary Joe whose job it is to reveal to us how these three monologues are linked by a horrific story of schoolboy bullying, followed by a paralysed incapacity to escape this hell-hole of a town. And throughout – to the apparent amusement of many women in the audience – women are portrayed as manipulative, powerful and mysterious, hardly more human than the shop-window dummies that parade in the background of Neil Haynes's brilliant High Street set.
As a portrait of men in trouble, Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco is beautifully-structured, powerfully written and heartrending; and in Leann O'Kasi's Tron production it's performed with terrific energy, if not always with perfect Welsh accents, by Colin Little, Martin McCormick and Kristian Phillips. As a portrait of these men in their relationship to women, though, the play is poised disturbingly between a critique of their attitudes, and a deep complicity with them; and the women, of course, are silent, allowed to speak only through the distorting glass of male perception, rage and desire.
The male imagination flowed more freely, it seems, back in the middle years of the 20th century, when the advancing tide of modernism reached its high point, and anything seemed possible.
Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds, published in 1939, is a startlingly bold first novel about a young man's creativity, and the act of composition itself. After a fashion, the book – which strongly renounces the idea that it should have only one beginning, or one ending – tells the story of a young, nameless literature student who is befriended by a devil called the Pooka McPhellimey; and about one of the characters in a story the student writes, a novelist called Trellis who is himself drugged and held prisoner by the rebellious characters he has created. The Blue Raincoat Theatre Company of Sligo – led by director Niall Henry and writer John Carty, and currently on tour in Scotland – have adapted this riotous classic of comic meta-narrative into a rousing muisic-hall style performance, in which scenes end, and stories dissolve into one another, at the swish of a small red curtain.
The style is theatrical and non-naturalistic, involving much use of Chaplinesque (or Beckett-like) tatty black bowler hats; the cast features two men and three women, playing characters of all genders without fear or favour. And the whole show comes as a welcome reminder both that the human imagination knows no bounds; and that art can deal briliantly with big themes of love, creativity and death, while still bringing a smile to the face, and offering a completely surreal belly-laugh.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, our hero Matthew ventures on a thoroughly postmodern male journey through the gay quarter of Manchester, in an effort to recover from the loss of his faithless ex-boyfriend. Matthew is a brilliant young maths lecturer, determined to find a mathematical formula which will demonstrate that he and his lost love should be together; but this obsession, combined with industrial quantities of drink, has put his job in jeopardy, and requires his colleague Alison, also gay, to cover for him, in all sorts of inventive ways.
James Ley's first play for Oran Mor is an interesting riot of ideas and characters, full of writing so richly detailed it almost defeats the short Oran Mor rehearsal process. Isabel Joss, who plays Alison, also has to deal with the startlingly dense and allusive monologues of a streetwise gay bar-owner called John, a Manchester character to treasure; and the play's multiple repetitive romantic endings, as Matthew finds new love, fairly drip with sentimentality.
There's so much energy, here, though, that the play's flaws are easy to forgive; and Matthew McVarish gives a comic performance to remember, as a man bent on demonstrating that when it comes to self-absorption, self-pity, and self-indulgence, the gay male community can give the straight one a run for its money, any party weekend of the year.
• Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 28 May, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, from 1-4 June. At-Swim-Two-Birds is at the Traverse until 28 May. I Heart Maths is at Oran Mor until 28 May.