As a televised Boris Johnson was telling the nation to avoid theatres, this reviewer was travelling into town to attend the first ever – and so far only – performance of Mike Heath’s new play “Boyfriend Stroke Husband” at the Kings Arms, Salford. The West End was voluntarily shutting itself down as I was walking up to the venue, and by the following morning, regional theatres had followed suit. Producing company Viaduct Theatre promptly closed down the remaining season of “Boyfriend Stroke Husband” – but will be restaging it once mass-gatherings are permitted again. This carefully executed piece of chamber theatre will be worth seeing when that happens.
The beginning appears to be set in the well-worn tropes of the dysfunctional family Christmas. We have a mother called Janis, a father called Brendan, and a stroppy teenage daughter called Liv. The parents are plainly no longer together, and engage in some Christmas gift one-upmanship with Liv, who is both troubled and spoiled. Janis was expecting Brendan to stay for Christmas dinner: he is uncomfortable and tense, makes his excuses and leaves, to Liv’s open disappointment. So far, so soap opera.
As scenes set over the subsequent weeks unfold though, there is actually quite a clever secret beneath this simple set-up. (I confess, I did work out the secret quite early on, but only because I’ve read of a similar case study in a Japanese family.) Playwright Mike Heath hangs onto the secret until the very last moment, and in the meantime twists and twizzles his characters about as if he is rotating a Rubik’s cube.
Nicole Evans was the driving force of the production as Janis, the mother. Her performance was as delicate and shimmering as silk. Initially she appeared to be the quiet housewife, then it was discovered she was an affluent corporate: but her frustrations and motivations at getting Brendan and Liv to do what she wanted were executed with subtle and quiet grace. It was a very understated yet nuanced performance, and once the secret was revealed, all the more impactful.
Kivan Dene managed to find every possible layer of unease in his performance as Brendan, the father. Very solidly grounded, he had more Rubik’s cube work than the others, and always kept the character’s sincerity.
Jenna Sian O’Hara was noisy, energetic, and a natural at slamming doors in a strop as Liv, the daughter. She factored in the constant surveillance and commentary of today’s technology, and a high point scene was where she was putting her parents on trial via Instagram: – another thirty five teenagers were apparently participating in the scene through Liv’s mobile phone. As a theatrical device to open out the action beyond the three actors on the stage, it was simple, but worked very well.
Mike Heath also directed, and there was a great use of the pregnant pause, and the silences that are heavily filled with meaning. There could have been a little more variation in stage dynamic, but that is being exceedingly picky. This is a lovely piece of theatrical origami, and needs to finish its postponed season.
Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 17/3/20