Saturday, 16 February 2019

Review: SparkPlug (Box of Tricks)

Thursday 14th February 2019
HOME, Manchester

Another theatre review from me! On Thursday, I was at HOME again for North Manchester FM, this time attending the press night of SparkPlug, a new play by Mancunian writer and performer David Judge. My review played out today on Hannah’s Bookshelf, but here’s the (slightly) longer version…

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

SparkPlug is a new production by Manchester-based theatre company Box of Tricks, which is currently on at HOME Manchester. The show is written and performed by David Judge and directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder.

This is a one-man show, and Judge has spoken in interviews about how it’s inspired by his own childhood and upbringing. Technically, the piece is a monologue, but the lyrical script and energetic performance style ensure that SparkPlug is so much more than a soliloquy. Its verbal style is poetic, with the rhythms and cadences of a spoken word piece, and its decade-long narrative unfolds in vignettes.

This is the story of Dave, a white working-class man from Wythenshawe with dodgy tattoos and a Ford Capri (well, it is the 1980s). Dave falls for Joanne, a friend of his sister, and near the beginning of the show he ‘rescues’ her from a drink- and drug-fuelled party at her flat in Moss Side. The party has descended into violence, and Dave narrates his concerns (and, significantly, his prejudices) about being a white man in a predominantly black neighbourhood. He also talks about his role as big brother to Angela, driver to his friends and family, and (potentially) lover to Joanne.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

Joanne, it transpires, is pregnant, and the father of the baby is black. Dave falls in love with Joanne, and then falls in love with the baby (a boy named David). As SparkPlug unfolds, this latter love – paternal love – is the central focus. This is not a play about a man’s relationship with a woman (though some aspects of Dave and Joanne’s relationship are covered), but rather a man’s relationship with his son. Interestingly, the word ‘stepson’ isn’t used at any point in the play – in SparkPlug’s world, you’re either a dad or you’re not.

The story takes place from 1983 to 1993. It charts the first ten years of young David’s life, though told from the perspective of Dave, a white man bringing up a black son (sometimes single-handedly) in Wythenshawe. The play tackles the question of race and skin colour head on, and is unafraid of addressing the more complicated aspects of dual heritage (or mixed race) identities. Racism, in various forms, is represented – from the direct, dehumanising comments of David’s white Irish grandmother to the polite but prurient curiosity of a Butlins holiday rep – but the play avoids reductive statements and commentary. Most strikingly, the play doesn’t hold back from presenting the prejudices of its central character, though that’s not to say that Dave is presented as an unreconstructed racist. This is a slice of life piece – warts and all – albeit one looked at from an unusual and unexpected angle.

This is also a story about masculinity and fatherhood – the script draws specific attention to the difference between being a (biological) father and being a dad. The character of Dave is drawn with real affection and warmth – he is, after all, our protagonist throughout – but the play doesn’t shy away from representing the darker side of masculine identity, with one sequence in particular, towards the end of the play, offering a painful and prolonged exploration of more destructive tendencies. Again, SparkPlug avoids hand-wringing explanations or excuses: Dave’s behaviour is presented as it is, and the audience is left to come to their own conclusions.

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

The play’s set, and Judge’s performance style, work well with the lyrical script. The metal frame of a car dominates the stage, and parts of this frame are removed, replaced and repurposed throughout the play to conjure different scenes. Although the car is a car for much of the performance (it is Dave’s Ford Capri, before becoming subsequent cars as time moves on), it is also a stage – on which Judge climbs, stands, curls and clings. Judge is barely still for a moment during the performance. With a near-static set, the audience is reliant on verbal and physical performance to set the scene – there are no set or lighting changes between vignettes, and the story jumps ahead by months or years at a staggering pace. Judge handles this with style, skill and exuberance – and with a little help from some well-selected music that serves as both soundtrack and thematic motifs.

As I’ve said, this is an autobiographically inspired piece, and Judge offers a short introductory ‘scene’ from the perspective of the son (drawing on his own life experiences), before entering the character of white, Capri-driving dad Dave. This introduction serves to set up the story as an affectionate homage to the man who raised David, and encourages the audience to view him with sympathy and humour.

However, I found myself wondering whether the audience’s feelings towards Dave would be different if the part was played by a white actor. Or if the introductory scene and subsequent monologue were performed by different actors. SparkPlug’s harder hitting lines are – at times – almost cushioned by the knowledge that we are watching a son pay tribute to his beloved dad. For instance, Dave’s difficulty at stating outright that he doesn’t like the Afro-Caribbean culture that attracts his sister and her friends, or his resistance to talking about introducing his son to ‘his roots’, raise spectres of entrenched prejudice and a particular view of race and culture. Would we respond differently if these lines were delivered by a white actor? Or if there were more separation between the characters of father and son?

Photo credit: Alex Mead, Decoy Media

I’ve read a couple of interviews with Judge where he’s talked about his intention to create a play that could be performed by other actors. In the current production, it’s hard to separate Judge-the-performer, Judge-the-writer and Judge-the-son – I’d be fascinated to see a future production with different casting. This is not a criticism, though, as Judge’s embodiment of the character of Dave is really skilfully and compellingly done.

Ultimately, SparkPlug is a tribute to, and an exploration of, what it means to be a dad – that’s where its undoubted strengths lie. It’s rare to see a production tackle questions of race, masculinity and violence in such a direct, honest and sympathetic way. Judge’s performance is captivating, carrying the audience through the messy complexities of Dave’s life with energy and compassion, and the show’s final lines are just excellent.

SparkPlug is a play about men, boys, race, sexuality, Manchester and cars. You’re unlikely to see a story quite like it at the theatre – so I’d recommend you check it out if you can.

SparkPlug is on at HOME, Manchester until 23rd February, before touring nationally.

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