Power and coercion are at the height of topical discussion at the moment. People are speaking out and, perhaps, the hegemonic structures of our social and political landscape are slowly but surely being deconstructed and exposed. But, is this just in the mainstream; the cities, the media, the London bubble?
Raving Mask Theatre’s latest play, Fat Jewels, takes its audience outside of the mainstream, into the hot and intimate council estate living room in South Yorkshire, where lives Danny (Robert Walters), a lonely middle-aged man whose partner and child have left him, leaving him with no-one but sort-of-family-friend Pat (Hugh Train), who’s about twenty years his junior. What begins with an image of the bonding father-and-son type relationship, over the sharing of a sausage-and-chip supper, melts out through the course of this seventy-minute play into a sinisterly erotic tale of mistrust and abuse of power, from a figure who hardly has any at all, to begin with.
Andrew Skelton’s set decorates the cosy space of the Hope Theatre – set up in thrust for this production – with four free-standing misshapen quadrilateral wall pieces, painted in lilac, creating the back wall of the living room; a red arm-chair, low table and hanging lamp; a dirty-sand coloured carpet that probably hasn’t been hovered for years. It’s incredibly claustrophobic and the actors (and the audience) are noticeably sweaty as we share in the feeling of the sauna-like flat, references to which are made purposefully throughout the dialogue.
Joseph Skelton’s script is intricately plotted; packed with poetic, punchy dialogue and a fascinating air of mystery and intrigue which keeps us wholly engaged through the full unravelling of the plot. He craftily keeps the balance between exposition and ambiguity; providing enough information to keep us interested, but never too much to completely give the game away. It feels a tad overtly-expositional at times, but ideas and suggestions are played out so teasingly that we never feel anything near to an anti-climax. Both characters are fleshed out with a depth and humanity that creates two clearly distinct voices and experiences on the stage, and it’s ultimately the relationship between the two that we’re fascinated by.
Walters and Train excel in their performances. As they get further and further into the vigorous conflict and revelations of the play, their performances become even more deeply embedded into the world of the Yorkshire council flat. Walters is desperate for company, using the power of his stance, the persuasiveness of his warm albeit on-the-verge-of threatening voice to manipulate Train in a way that almost makes us struggle to hate him at times. Train is hopelessly naïve; his body jumps in excitement with joy at the beginning and becomes a site of shell-shock by the end. He sweats menacingly through his grey t-shirt, but completely refrains from this distraction, as he powers through to the climactic moments, offering one of the most dynamic stage performances I’ve seen in years. He is definitely one to watch, and his talent and raw dedication absolutely shine in this heart-wrenching portrayal.
The final scene sees Pat attack a raw chicken with a baseball bat as he lets out his anger in the final stage of Danny’s ‘therapy’. Given the fact that the audience are literally on the edge of the stage in this venue, it feels unnecessary to beat the chicken with quite so much power. It also means that the front row becomes a bit of a chicken splash zone. This moment made me angry. I’ve avoided meat my entire life, and the lack of warning from the venue that this was going to happen I found extremely inconsiderate. It’s a shame that the finale of the play was essentially ruined for me by this moment, as I couldn’t help becoming distracted by the thought of dead bird bits flying at me and I struggled to regain focus for the final moments. I make a plea to production teams to please consider your audiences when making decisions like this. A warning would have been appreciated so I could have sat further away from the danger zone.
Back to the play: It also raises questions of sexuality and class without being explicit; the questions are there, but Skelton avoids making this specifically a play about sexuality and class. This is the genius of the work: it’s tackling of an untouched topic without becoming even slightly patronising. Its coherence does slip occasionally: an odd moment when Pat talks about the future and thinks about having a girlfriend or boyfriend. This seems jarring. The character, I assumed up until this point, hadn’t even questioned or thought about his sexuality. The homoeroticism that uncomfortably lingers throughout the play is sort of addressed here somewhat formally; it seems out of place, like a slip of the tongue.
Despite a few jarring moments and a title which I can’t help but think undermines the power of this brilliant narrative, this Luke Davies production is masterful; we’re quickly invited into the world of our characters, and the tightly-constructed timing of the action holds us on firmly for the duration of the performance and hardly lets us go until the final blackout.
Review by Joseph Winer
A South Yorkshire council estate. Pat’s having strange dreams. He can’t shake them. He’s gone round to Danny’s for a chat and some healthy advice. Lonely and dangerous, Danny insists that what Pat needs is a therapy programme of Danny’s own making, involving cricket bats and trips to the zoo…
FAT JEWELS is a dark and surreal tragi-comedy about two lonely, repressed and marginalized individuals in a very hot room. It’s a play about disenfranchisement and anger, coercion and abused authority.
FAT JEWELS was written by Joseph Skelton (The Noctambulist, winner Best New Writing, Durham Drama Festival) and directed by Luke Davies (The Chemsex Monologues, nom. Best Ensemble, Off West End Awards).
It is a Raving Mask Theatre production. Raving Mask’s most recent production, The Conductor, has toured around the UK and Europe and was the winner of the Jonathan Beecher award.
writer: JOSEPH SKELTON director: LUKE DAVIES
3 – 21 July 2018