1 – 26 May 2018
By Izzy Tennyson
Directed by Hannah Hauer-King
Grotty is a semi-autobiographical work by Izzy Tennyson (who also plays the lead role as a younger, fictionalised version of herself, “Rigby”).
Rigby is socially awkward, depressed, anxious, indecisive, sometimes nasty, insecure, superficial, and annoying; she has problems with drugs, alcohol, sex, her relationships, self-image, family, and existentialism; she lies to, manipulates, and displays an enormous lack of respect for herself and everyone else on the planet. All of this is entirely self-aware, but that doesn’t always make it more palatable. Tennyson plays her character to be “grotesque”, with an over-exaggerated hunch, screwed-up face, jutting lower jaw, messy hair, scowl, open mouth, and twisting hands. She speaks so fast that I could barely understand her. She doesn’t seem to display any sort of character development throughout the period of the play, despite coming oh-so-close at the end to admitting to her therapist that all her problems are of her own making. She is constantly slagging off everyone around her, but reserves some of the worst bitterness as ammunition against herself.
There is a moment when Rigby, in conversation with her straight friend Kate, dismisses the suggestion that she find herself a “nice girl” by asserting that nice lesbians don’t exist (echoing her friend Josie’s declaration that “women are bitches, mate”). Kate responds, straight-faced (sorry), with “that’s a bit homophobic, Rigby.” Cue a comedic pause as Rigby raises her eyebrows at the audience – the punchline, of course, is I’m the lesbian here, I can’t be homophobic! The thing is, Kate was absolutely on the money. Women can be misogynistic (most characters in this all-woman cast are), people defying gender norms can still reinforce them (every lesbian character’s cruelty about Toad’s weight), and members of the LGBTQ community can still be transphobic, biphobic, or homophobic (Rigby and her lovers/friends are all of these!). I know, I know, these are not “nice girls” and the criticism of their behaviours and opinions is implicit in the tone of the play, but when subtle digs like these are woven throughout the play and never really criticised, let alone outright condemned, it normalises it.
In one particularly sickening scene, Rigby and Josie effectively date-rape a “bicurious” Russian woman. This is an act which is admittedly not portrayed sympathetically, but Rigby shows no regret or guilt about it, it has no repercussions, and is never alluded to again. This was merely the most violent manifestation of a through-thread of vitriol towards bisexual women, described variously as attention-seeking, “fucking scum”, and “breeders”, who don’t belong in queer spaces, which should be “safe” for gold-star lesbians. As I said, I realise that this entire play was intended to be a portrayal of the human tendency to respond to disenfranchisement by paying the cruelty forward, but as a bisexual woman in what I had thought would be a queer safe space, I felt betrayed and alienated. Although I am a firm believer that comedy should always punch up, I could perhaps forgive a play that punches inwards – as Grotty mainly tends to – but punching down, or sideways, while you’re at it? I’m not so sure.
To give the play its due, there were some moments which were genuinely insightful and powerful. These included when Rigby reveals that she was assessed as being ineligible for Phase 2 of NHS mental health treatment (“suicidal but not suicidal enough… Next time, I’ll come back in a body bag!”), the observations that the lesbian community is relegated to the fringes of queer society by the louder, more flamboyant gay men and drag queens scene, and the guilt Rigby feels at being selfishly glad that her mother with cancer had been taken to hospital and was no longer in the house. Tennyson’s writing is beautiful stylistically, revealing her spoken word poetry background and a knack for making her audience laugh. The problem was, the play touched on so many complex and heavy topics – mental health, grief, love, sex, sexuality, gender roles, inter-generational conflict, addiction, trauma, etc etc – that it could not do proper justice to any of them. As a result, it felt thematically both crowded and overwhelmingly negative.
The cast of supporting members – in particular Rebekah Hinds (Toad/Kate), Grace Chilton (Witch/Elliot), and Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Natty/Josie) – shone in their various and varied roles. Often on the peripherals of the stage, seated in armchairs positioned amongst the front rows of the audience, they played Rigby’s memories of characters rather than the actual characters herself, summoned from the periphery of her consciousness when narrative required it. The contrast between the characters of Witch (older, abusive, psychopathic, fetishist) and Elliot (young, vulnerable, insecure, questioning her sexuality) meant that Chilton in particular had the opportunity to display her versatility. I was especially impressed by the variation in her vocal tones – as Witch, her voice was lower, more clipped, flatter, and almost robotic, even in the scene in which she revealed her one emotional weakness (superbly done – this character was such an unambiguous, almost cartoonish villain, and yet I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her in this monologue), whereas Elliot was oozing hurt and desperation for love with every awkward word she said.
I cannot fault Hauer-King’s direction of this piece, and her use of the unique stage space that is The Bunker. Characters make use of every inch of available space, as well as backstage, so that the performance bleeds into the audience, feeling raw and immediate. The set and props are minimalistic – nine black boxes which can be manoeuvered into a bed, a table and chairs, a dancefloor, and much more, as well as a bench at the back of the stage resting against a jumble of mirrors, representing the fractured nature of Rigby’s world. Props are used sparingly and suggestively – there is a hat, a dog collar, a ball gag, a blanket, a number of plastic cups, some white powder, and not much more. The economy of materials means that each item is used to great effect, and nothing onstage is unnecessary or distracting.
Damsel Productions are, according to the programme, committed to “the crucial movement addressing both the misrepresentation and under-representation of women in theatre”. Ultimately, increasing the amount of (stage)space given to women in the industry can only be a good thing, as can widening the sorts of roles and narratives which women are able to portray. Women in theatre should be able to be not just beautiful or strong or likeable, but also messy, nasty, dysfunctional, ugly, grotesque, annoying, rude, and every other point on the human spectrum. It is absolutely possible to write an unsympathetic, repellent female character in a play that is also insightful, clever, affecting, or funny. However, Grotty feels like it aimed for shock factor rather than anything meaningful, and unfortunately, being edgy is not the same as being deep.