Alistair McDowall’s one-man play Captain Amazing was performed this week at the Burton Taylor Studio. The play, which received good reviews at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, depicts the struggles of a very ordinary man, who faces life’s problems in an extraordinary way – by pretending that he is a superhero. This seemingly unsophisticated and farcical plot masks the more complex themes of the play: those of the blurring of fiction and reality, the use of pretence as a means of dealing with trauma, and the inevitability of loss and suffering, even for those perceived as superheroes.
McDowall, who won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2011 for his play Brilliant Adventures, takes an innovative approach to theatrical work in this hour-long monologue, in which the protagonist Mark relates his life to the audience in a series of flashback episodes. Throughout the monologue we witness his first date, the birth of his child, and the breakdown of his relationship with his partner; we watch as his life is struck by joy, humour, and tragedy. We see the mundane problems of life, the awkwardness of first dates and late night encounters, mixed with the tragedy of grief, loss, and separation. This sometimes grim, sometimes comic reality is juxtaposed with Mark’s alter-ego, the heroic Captain Amazing, whose bravado and daring deeds brought the audience to roaring laughter. It is only later in the play that we realise that Captain Amazing is a constructed persona, a fiction told to his terminally ill daughter as a bedtime story, which later becomes his method of coping with her death. McDowall shows both that the heroic are not immune to tragedy, and that it is through constructed fiction and performance that we can deal with the tragedies of every day existence.
The prospect of performing a monologue on a bare stage is no doubt daunting for professional performers, and must surely be more so for a student company. However, the performance given by Andrew Dickinson was incredible in its mixture of humour and maturity. Playing several roles in the flashback scenes, Dickinson became the awkward lover, the grieving father, and even the inquisitive little girl, with ease. The innovative form of the play and the quality of the performance were coupled with an almost empty set of a black backdrop and a chair; the only colour was provided by infantile drawings projected onto the wall as references to the different scenes. The poignancy of Emily’s illness was highlighted through these images, childish stick figures depicting her ‘superhero’ father in various stages of his life. The true irony of Captain Amazing is that, although parents can be superheroes in the eyes of their children, even superheroes are ultimately unable to save those they love the most.
Dickinson, the directing team, and the production crew deserve a lot of credit for this production of Captain Amazing. It was simple but effective, and Dickinson’s stellar performance brought out the complexity of the script in the intimate setting of the Burton-Taylor Studio. This should be remembered as an example of excellent student drama in Oxford.
For future events at the Burton Taylor Studio, please visit their website.