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Horsepower – Written and Performed by Harriet Gandy

It’s a challenging piece of theatre, but not necessarily in a wholly satisfying way: more often than not I found myself trying to figure out what exactly was going on. Horsepower begins with ‘Destructive Desmond’, a cabaret performer who, by his own admission, is also – amongst other things – a children’s swimming instructor, chandelier installer, a trained opera singer and, at weekends, a plumber. Few of the various named professions are actually demonstrated, though there is some good banter with the audience, the quality of which presumably partly depends on how interactive a given audience is prepared to be with someone who is, frankly, as abrasive as he is exuberant.

Horsepower - Written and Performed by Harriet GandyI wondered if we’d see Desmond again after he suddenly disappears and is swiftly replaced by Wilbert, who is subjected in one of many retrospective scenes to punishment by his father (think Lola/Simon in Kinky Boots getting a thrashing from his father for wearing high heeled shoes) that seems disproportionate, at least by contemporary standards, to the alleged ‘crime’. In the present day, at a somewhat inadequately sized table, Wilbert is waiting for friends who are, we are told, in love with each other – Toby, who works “in a managerial kind of role” and Andrew, a singer. It transpires to be quite a long wait: the front door only receives a knock at the very end of the show.

What then transpires is a rather rushed and frantic exploration of Wilbert’s formative years, which seem to be largely a lousy and traumatic affair, and sadly one that is more relatable, at least in parts, to more people than it should be. There are also displays of coping strategies, some borne out of anger and frustration, which – whether by default or by design, or a combination – are indicative of the sheer difference between growing up in a supportive family and a non-supportive one. In the former, one can talk with civility and discuss matters. In the latter, and more specifically in Wilbert’s, one is merely yelled at and called all sorts of names under the sun with little, if any, justification. It does go some way to explain Desmond’s acerbic wit as Wilbert’s alter ego.

It is, by Fringe standards, quite an elaborate set: some costumes hang on a railing upstage, and there’s another table upstage, with a radio and a portrait sitting on top. The narrative remains unresolved by curtain call – indeed, Wilbert finally getting his act together and going to answer the front door feels more like a cliff-hanger to go into the interval with, rather than the end of a one-act play. How ‘destructive’ was ‘Desmond’ after all? Wilbert is still around and might have been driven to be taken by his own hand without Desmond’s defiance against trouble both at home and in the school playground.

Refreshingly, while the show has some intense moments, it does not spill over into weepy melodrama. This production makes a valiant effort to overcome a relatively common weakness of single-performer plays – that of a single perspective being presented – although it could be argued that it goes too far the other way, putting forward so many viewpoints that the show overall borderlines on being confusing. Some quick costume changes, which need not be elaborate (putting on a hat, for instance, would be sufficient to distinguish one character from another) would help the audience navigate through what turns out to be quite an ambitiously complex plot. An unconventional show best enjoyed by anyone looking for something different with a capital D.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Desmond lives to perform cabaret. Wilbert creates posies from wildflowers. Who shall wear the crown tonight?

HORSEPOWER presents the perennially queer Wilbert and his shadow self-Destructive Desmond: an irreverent cabaret artist. Examining the divided self, shame and gender conformity and the overwhelming pull to perform in a society which congratulates ego-driven performance; the show uncovers what transpires in the dark and absurd shadows of Wilbert’s mind when his mask starts to slip.

Listings information
Venue: theSpace @ Surgeons Hall
Dates: 15–20 August 2022
Time: 19:10 (0hr50)

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