Think back. Has anyone ever said to you that looks don’t matter, its personality that counts’ Anyone that answered ‘No’ to that skip to the next paragraph. If like me you answered ‘yes’ then you know of all the lies people tell you, this one is the most heinous. It’s normally said by parents, friends already in relationships and the good-looking types that have now skipped to the next paragraph. I’ve had the line given to me many times and I can safely bet the protagonist in Ben Fensome’s one-act play Buff, which I saw at the Vault Festival has been similarly advised.
Our hero is a 32-year-old, plus-sized, gay primary school teacher played by David O’Reilly. Due to a messy break up of his relationship, he has had to start dipping his toes once more into the gay dating scene – and by that, we mean ‘The Apps’ – and he has had to sublet a room in his tiny flat to make ends meet. In a move that he may come to regret, his new tenant, Jamie, is a buff Instagram model for whom a day is considered wasted if he has not moved bits of metal, weighing more than he does, up and down to pounding music in his gym.
As a chubby chap well over the magical age of 30, I should hate Buff as a story. Mainly because it brings to the front the hypocrisy of my dating life. Whilst – like our protagonist – I complain about the superficiality of the Apps, and the fact they are a bad way to meet people, I – again like our protagonist – have bought into that whole ‘swipe left, swipe right’ culture and way of seeking people I’m interested in. Unlike many, I am never rude to those I reject, but have had my share of hurtful comments that leave me hating myself and wanting to make changes I know are very likely to happen. But I didn’t hate it, I really loved it.
No idea if Fensome just has an overactive imagination but the writing is authentic and first-rate. There were moments that echoed events in my own life – the abortive trip to Wimbledon instantly springs to mind, as something similar happened to me only a couple of weeks ago. Our school teacher friend goes through a lot in a relatively short space of time. And what a journey he has. From the initial stages of friendship with his new flatmate, through the sometimes vicious online trolling by people happy to give their opinion of him while protected by the anonymity of an App, to a full-blown breakdown that actually felt uncomfortable to watch, as if I were one of those that had brought him to this point and was voyeuristically revelling in his humiliation. It’s all there, and before I move on, the scenes at his school and interactions with his pupils really were exactly as I remember from my own childhood where teachers had this knack of making cutting and sarcastic remarks without offending anyone.
But, as I said recently, to really work, a monologue needs not only a good script but a phenomenal actor. Well, step forward David O’Reilly and take your well-deserved bows. What a performance. Everything that the character went through was portrayed in every fibre of O’Reilly’s body. This was an amazing performance that really brought the script to life and took the storytelling to another level. There was a point near the end of the play where the character looks over and calls one of his nieces to join him. I’d been so hooked by the performance at this point that I too looked over fully expecting someone to toddle on over to their uncle.
Director Scott Le Crass made the decision to keep the set minimal – a simple red chair on the stage – and this really worked. There was nothing to see but O’Reilly’s performance, enhanced by lighting and sound effects, and yet the audience were transported from his flat to his classroom and everywhere in between as we followed his story.
Buff is one of those wonderful plays you get at the Vault Festival. It’s an excellent example of writing, directing and acting coming together to deliver a show that hooks you, holds you and finally sends you away with much to think about and reflect on and a sense of seeing something very special indeed.
Review by Terry Eastham
After a bad break-up from a 6-year relationship, a 32-year-old, plus-sized, gay primary school teacher finds he must sublet his flat to a buff Instagram model. A funny yet poignant solo-performed play (centering the type of gay character who is usually left out of the story) BUFF explores body image pressures, jealousy, and the journey to self-acceptance through the world of online dating and social media.
BUFF: Scott Le Crass and Ben Fensome at Vault Festival
Tue 31st Jan – Sun 19th Feb 2023