Monologues are a tricky balancing act for any performer. You need to keep an audience’s interest on you throughout, when any number of factors might distract them or cause them to switch off. They might just dislike you on sight, meaning everything else is a battle you’ve already lost, or the speech might not reach the levels of drama or humour the writer intended. Andrew Maddock’s The Me Plays see him take on an even greater challenge than delivering someone else’s monologues – in this show, he’s the only person on stage for the entire one and a half hours, and he’s performing two plays’ worth of his own “semi-autobiographical” writing. So is he able to keep us on side?
The good news is that Maddock is instantly likable – a slightly larger-than-average London lad who’s not afraid to speak directly to his audience and who puts himself in the vulnerable position of playing himself in the two pieces – “Junkie” and “Hi Life, I Win”. It means we’re not only judging him as a writer but in fact we’re given a glimpse into his real life experiences and point of view. The whole thing comes across more as a stand-up comedy gig than a theatrical performance – nothing wrong with that, but this genre too comes with pitfalls, and Maddock never quite manages to avoid them.
Writers like Alan Bennett have shown there’s a rich seam of pathos and comedy to be mined from describing ordinary people living normal lives, but The Me Plays never really earn more laughter than a brief chuckle of recognition – and equally are not eventful enough to truly be classed as drama. Perhaps what’s missing is the insight and quirky perspective required to lift observational, quasi-confessional writing into a realm where it can make us see ourselves and others in a different light.
“Junkie” takes place in the present day and explores online dating, as “Me” prepares to meet a girl he encountered on Tinder for the first time and Maddock discusses how he feels about his own appearance and how his social expectations have been modified by what he sees as an addiction to internet pornography. Along the way, we are treated to some amusing anecdotes about shopping in Topman, and some impersonations of “youths” which are stereotypical but give Maddock the opportunity to display his skills with dialogue: both on page and stage. While there are some moments of introspection – signalled by subtle lighting changes from Charlie Marie Austin and Christopher Nairne’s design, which mostly uses fluorescent tape to form the outline of a house and occasionally a Tube train or bus – it is hard to see what Maddock wanted us to take away from the piece. It doesn’t help that the central metaphor – the city of London is a sea, with plenty more fish in it – is stretched to breaking point over the course of the 45 minutes’ running time. Or that for some reason he chose to write both pieces in verse. It’s difficult not to find yourself guessing the next rhyme rather than absorbing the story, and control over poetic meter is sufficiently lacking in places to disrupt the rhythm of the pieces and make them rather jerky and disjointed. Some obvious rhymes (“worry” and “hurry” is overused, for example) and repetition of phrases such as “this digital age” hurt the monologue too.
“Hi Life, I Win” takes a more nostalgic standpoint as Maddock looks back on his life as a teenager – and we come to see the origins of the everyman we met in pre-interval “Junkie”. This piece touches on faith (a result of attending a Roman Catholic school) and family, and is more profound and touching than the first monologue, but still not telling us anything particularly new. On a side note, it’s pleasing to see an extended section given over to the music of Loudon Wainwright III – aptly reflecting the paternal troubles being examined, but not really adding much.
All in all, there’s nothing all that wrong with either monologue (aside from the misguided decision to write them in verse) and the evening passes by divertingly enough. Director Ryan Bradley skilfully keeps the performer relatable and likeable as he moves around the small space provided by the Old Red Lion pub, and the two pieces keep our attention, but when it comes down to it a “journey into everyday averageness” is perhaps always going to leave an audience craving more insight and reason to be interested.
The Me Plays continues at the Old Red Lion Theatre until September 20.