Sunday, 7 July 2019

Review: Gobby (Jodie Irvine, GM Fringe)

Saturday 6th July 2019
Studio, King’s Arms, Salford

The 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I’m continuing to see and review shows on this year’s programme. On Saturday 6th July, I was at the King’s Arms, Salford, to see Gobby, the debut play by Jodie Irvine. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Written and performed by Irvine – and directed by Serafina Cusack – Gobby is a one-woman play that promises ‘a playlist of awkward encounters’ and a story of ‘growing up and starting over’. I will admit I went into Gobby expecting, perhaps, a clichéd tale of angst, embarrassment and over-indulgence. But I’m delighted to say – and this is one of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with the Fringe – my expectations were completely confounded!

When the audience enters the (admittedly rather cosy) Studio at the King’s Arms, Irvine is already on stage, in character, listlessly blowing up balloons. Behind her is a banner that proclaims, ‘It’s a party’. Her character is Bri (‘like the cheese, except not like the cheese because it doesn’t have an E at the end’), a seemingly awkward party host. Around her, the stage is covered in party decorations – foil hats, streamers and party poppers litter the space.

Bri explains that she’s going to tell us about five parties that changed her life. She lets off a single party popper to signal the beginning of the first scene: this is Party Number 1, a gathering Bri herself has thrown in order to convince some formerly close friends to spend some time with her. For some reason, those friends have stopped inviting Bri to things, and she’s desperate to try and redress this.

Irvine is certainly engaging and very funny in this opening gambit. A party hat on an inflated balloon stands in for a guy she’s talking to. Her description of the much-desired clique as a ‘pack of wolves’ leads to a funny self-deprecating assessment, and sets up an apparently identifiable dynamic (the ‘pack’ are the Mean Girls to Bri’s Cady, the Heathers to her Veronica). But Gobby is about so much more than this, and the layers that sit under the surface are about to be revealed.

And what a reveal it is. Part way through the first party, and whipped up to high pitch with stress and annoyance at being ignored, Bri discloses some backstory that changes our perception of her character and the direction the story is going. I swear I felt the audience take a collective breath (carefully, though, as we were sitting rather close together in the studio space!), but Irvine’s performance didn’t miss a beat. Moving seamlessly from awkwardness, to biting humour, to bitterness, to brittleness, Bri is a rounded and well-realized character with a powerful story to tell.

I don’t want to say too much about how that story unfolds. However, I will say that it’s an unusual, but absorbing, take on self-awareness, survival and self-worth. As some of the show’s publicity states, this is a show about ‘what it really means to be loud’. Bri is ‘gobby’, and the show offers an honest, sympathetic and – on occasions – bittersweet exploration of this.

As a woman who has sometimes been called ‘gobby’, and who knows that she talks too much, too fast and too loud sometimes, I felt a rather personal identification with the character of Bri. More painfully, I also once found myself in a similar situation to Bri’s backstory, and felt some rather visceral parallels between my own experience and that portrayed on stage. I say this, not to bring my own story into this review, but rather to highlight the seriousness of Irvine’s piece. While Bri is a fictional character, the story of Gobby is one that will resonate – perhaps painfully – with many audience members (I don’t imagine I can be the only one!). In her writing and performance, Irvine seems aware of this, and more than up to the task. There is a sensitivity and humanness to Gobby’s story, devoid of condescension or trite answers.

Irvine’s writing and performance are both charming and sensitive (and yes, I laughed a lot, but I did also shed a tear or two). But – weirdly – I would also like to praise her use of props. When the show begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking the party items have simply been cast around the stage at random, and yet at every moment of the performance, Irvine is able to lay her hands on exactly the party popper or paper cup that she needs. Like all the best parties, Gobby is a carefully choreographed piece, despite all its appearance of casualness.

It’s not just Irvine’s use of props that’s well-choreographed, the storytelling is also very well-constructed to give a sense of arc and development. The humour is relatable, and Irvine has great comic timing. But the more serious – and heartfelt – story that underlies it is really quite moving. The show’s real strength lies in the way these two elements work together – they’re actually two sides of the same coin.

Overall, Gobby is a show that really surprises. Sharp, honest, and well-performed, this is an entertaining and skilful debut show, and I hope to see lots more from Irvine in the future.

I’m going to end this review with a slightly unorthodox bit of praise… for the rest of the audience at Saturday’s show! As I’ve mentioned, the Studio at the King’s Arms is a bit of a cosy space. The show was sold out – which is great for Irvine, but it meant that every bit of seating space was needed. We were rather close to one another, to say the least. I don’t know if it was the vibe of the venue, or the anticipation of the show, but I couldn’t have shared that space with a more good-natured group of people, who happily squeezed in together with good humour and patience. As I say, an odd thing to mention in a review, but what a lovely bonus!

Gobby was on at the King’s Arms in Salford on 5th and 6th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be touring other Fringe festivals, including Bedford, Exeter and Edinburgh, in July and August. For the full programme of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, visit the festival’s website.

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