Entering the Burton Taylor Studio, the set of ‘Me and Mike’ sparked instant curiosity. A folded copy of the Guardian, a quilt blanket, a Macbook Air, and various other objects littered the stage. At the back, a few strips of white material hung from the ceiling, later acting as a kind of fractured projector screen. The set epitomised the fragmented and unstable atmosphere of this new play, written by student playwright Alexander Hartley.
Will Stevens was the sole actor, and his performance was remarkable. He trotted onstage wearing baggy tracksuit bottoms and an oversized cable knit jumper, his hands constantly fidgeting by his side, It was clear that this was a character profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin.
The play consists of several short scenes centred on the relationship between Stevens’ character and his boyfriend, Mike, who is never seen in the play, except in a voicemail message and a snippet of a recorded argument between the two characters, projected on to the fragmented screen. As the play progressed, it became clear that their relationship was distinctly unstable, and Stevens slowly, and with brutal honesty, teased out the telling details of their passionless sex life, their arguments, and his own deep insecurities.
Stevens carried the whole production with a mixture of heartbreaking tenderness and stark self-awareness. His string of confessions, in which he admitted to feeling uneasy around black people and having a crippling awareness of his own sexual inadequacy, was a moment of raw honesty which cut through the play’s humour with poignancy.
The scope of the play was constantly shifting. Stevens’ character moved from a frenzied monologue about space and the insignificance of humans, to planning his daily routine with an almost comic level of detail. Perhaps the most bizarre thread which ran through the play was a seemingly un-ironic lust for politician Peter Mandelson, one of the many details which pointed to the oddness of Stevens’ character. Stevens shifted from waxing lyrical about the ‘Prince of Darkness’ to a bizarre scene in which he danced awkwardly to house music while images of Mandelson were projected onto the fractured screen at the back of the stage.
While the absurdity of the Peter Mandelson motif was funny, it also played into the depressing isolation of Stevens’ character. The intimacy and honesty which a healthy relationship should provide was glaringly absent from his romance with Mike, and the audience was the only thing left to confide in, Peter Mandelson the only person left to bring him comfort. When he was talking about politics, or watching political debates on his laptop, the soft, dull light mirrored his sense of safety. When listening to Mike’s voicemail with an agonised expression on his face, the lighting was bright and intrusive, to match Stevens’ anguish.
Beyond the weirdness and the idiosyncratic humour lay a sad portrait of a deeply troubled personality. Though Stevens’ character was extreme in this sense, the power of the play was that many aspects of his character were recognisable and understandable. This complexity of character seems to be the crux of what Hartley is exploring in the play: one the one hand, the main character’s narcissism is off-putting, yet his matter-of-fact honesty prevent the audience from feeling wholly negatively towards him. By writing an entire play around someone with almost no self-worth, Hartley empowers Stevens’ character, flaws and all.
Performing a one-man play seems like one of the hardest tasks in theatre, and Stevens presented a nuanced character with confidence and finesse: a feat which felt all the more impressive given that the play lasted just forty minutes. Student theatre can often feel more pretentious than substantial, but in this case, both play and production were outstandingly conceived and executed, without a hint of pretension.
‘Me and Mike’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 14th; tickets can be purchased here.
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