Wingman, 16/9/14

Wingman – Soho Theatre 16/9/14 £15

Richard Marsh – Richard and Brigitte.
Jerome Wright – Len Marsh.

Reviewed by David Turner [Originally published on the old blog, September 2014]

I first saw Richard Marsh perform a synopsis of this play in the form of a poem back in May. I saw him perform this again in June. I then saw a “script-in-hand” preview of the play in July and now the finished product. All this might suggest that I should be some sort of expert on Wingman, or admit that I’m stalking Richard Marsh. Neither thing is true. Right?

The truth is, having seen all these different versions I’m now confused as to whatWingman was ever supposed to be. The preview and the finished play were like two dialects of the same language: same plot, yet very different interpretations. I mention this as I will be referencing some of these differences in this review.

So, Wingman delivers us into Richard’s life at the moment that his mother is diagnosed with cancer. Visiting and caring for his mother at the hospice brings Richard back into contact with his estranged father, Len; their lives are further entwined by the news that Richard’s mother has requested they scatter her ashes together and that Brigitte, a work colleague of Richard’s, has fallen pregnant after their one night stand at an office party. She goes on to have the baby and calls the boy Len. There follows a touching tale of anger, self-doubt, love, forgiveness and redemption as Richard and Len both try to work out what it means to be a father.

So, this is a review of a theatre piece but it’s a theatre piece with a script that rhymes a lot, so if you and I accept for the moment that rhyming = poetry then this play qualifies as poetry. This fucker rhymed a lot.

This brings me to my first points: there was a lot of clever use of rhyme in the dialogue both book-ending, and providing “the meat” in, the jokes which carpet-bombed the audience. The tempo of the delivery was kept high, perhaps a little too high. Funny? It didn’t stop being funny. These are probably the main differences between this performance and the preview. I missed the emphasis on the darker elements of the plot, especially the far more awkward nature of Richard’s reaction to being stuck in a car with his father as they drive to the Lake District in their first, doomed attempt to scatter his mother’s ashes.

Speaking to Richard Marsh after the performance, he told me that he had added more gags (especially at the beginning), “to give the audience permission to laugh”. I understand this completely, though worry that it actually encourages the audience to not stop fucking laughing. I got the impression that some members of the audience were often laughing at his (good) attempt at a Welsh woman’s accent rather than listening to what she actually had to say. This is a shame, because the character of Brigitte is extremely important as a conduit between Richard and his father. I suppose, had the team behind Wingman been aware of how successful it would prove to be it may have paid off having an extra cast member playing Brigitte.

I suppose my problem here is that all too often the only way poetry gets “proper stage time” in front of a paying audience is if it’s funny. Is it really the case that the general public have no interest in poetry unless we as performers package it as stand-up? We can take Bang Said the Gun (poetry not ponce) here as an example, by far London’s most popular poetry night for those that don’t attend the tens of other events happening every month. Now I don’t subscribe to the idea that Bang’s audience ‘come to see something different’, they go along to laugh. I don’t have a problem with that choice; I just don’t think we should kid ourselves that they go along for the one melancholic poet thrown into the middle of the line-up. So what can we change? Not the writing – we must never change our writing in order to sell tickets. Maybe the packaging is wrong? One of the best things about going along to Bang is the atmosphere, informal almost raucous. I suppose what they do is give the audience permission to laugh.

As clever as the dialogue in Wingman is, it is nicely punctuated with a simpler use of language and a bit of good old fashioned swearing “Let me spin the ice into your veins with the magic of poetry. It was fucking freezing.” and “Her [Brigitte’s] flat was baby-twatted.” On the night Richard fluffed the “baby-twatted” line, which is a shame as I’d been looking forward to it since the preview. I probably shouldn’t be such a childish twat.

There were some nice examples of what I assume to be standard playwriting techniques. One being, Brigitte bringing Baby Len into their shared workplace in order to reunite Richard and his son, the same office in which the child had been conceived. The cyclical nature of this part of the plot was mirrored elsewhere. Another example (and a favourite scene of mine) places Big Len in the middle of a landfill site as he searches for his ex-wife’s ashes. For the first time Len turns to address the audience, signifying his redemption, not only in his son’s eyes but more importantly in his own. This was a very beautifully acted scene by Jerome Wright, as his character realises he has finally earned another chance to be a good father and with that to be a grandfather.

It has been fascinating to watch the development of this play over the last few months. Having had the opportunity to watch different creative decisions being acted out on stage has been very interesting. The process has reinforced the benefit of getting along to see repeated performances of the same production.

The issue of wishing the darker elements remained from the preview raises itself again here, it was probably just a case of me projecting my own tastes onto the plot line and just missing the comic intent from the start. But I bought a ticket for both performances so I’m allowed to do that, right? I suppose there’s a lesson for us all here. If we want plays, poems, books or films to travel in certain directions then we should probably pick up a fucking pen.

My name is David and I fucking hate poetry.


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