GRIMLY COMIC, NOBLY TOUGH
For a young actor to play a severely disabled, facially twisted, speech-impaired young man in an electric wheelchair cannot – in this week of Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar – fail to evoke comparisons. Here, close up for a hundred emotionally and physically gruelling minutes, Oliver Gomm delivers the performance of his life. In movement, face, and urgent distorted voice he is – I mean this as high praise – every bit as unsettling as the real thing. Which means that he evokes in us “normal” onlookers, unless we are practised carers, an authentic degree of pity, unease, and awkwardness. Until (again as in real life) we grow to know and like the determined inhabitant of that body. We see him first naked, lifted from his bath slippery and jerking and swearing, an angry teenager newly sexual and despairing at his lot. By the end Joey is the wisest of them all: no angel indeed but shiningly human.
In Canadian Brad Fraser’s tough, unnerving play Gomm is Joey, who is looked after by his widowed father Jake , once a writer, with assistance from his aunt Twyla (Charlotte Harwood), the younger sister Jake raised after their mother died. Greg Wise, back onstage after a long gap, puts heart and anger and warm furious truth into the role: he makes it clear that Jake has come to think himself irreplaceable, too lovingly controlling and immersed: “I have a severely disabled son; I have no self”.
Interaction between the father and son is wrenchingly real, both in affection and anger. Not least as Jake (who is carrying on a relief affair every Tuesday with married Robyn) has to assuage the boy’s desperate erections. An easier relationship is of Joey with a schoolmate Rowdy, a cheeky, sexually adventurous “retarded” victim of foetal alcohol syndrome. He is entertainingly and authentically played by Jack McMullen, at first as an irresponsible nuisance obsessed with online porn, gradually emerging into decency as he becomes useful to the household “smelling of piss and despair”. He has to be useful because – Fraser really piles it on here – Jake himself has a fall and is succumbs to a spinal neurological condition which rapidly reduces him to a state only slightly less crippled than his son. Thus Greg Wise, like Gomm, has to perform a physically intense and agonizing change of shape and movement.
Do I make it sound unremittingly hellish? Not at all. Just over an hour in I did wonder whether the author – and director Braham Murray – were going to run into the sand, but despite a slight sag as more sexual issues are played out, they never do. Partly because Brad Fraser gives Joey sudden fabulous one-liners, which Gomm gloriously shouts, reducing the surrounding audience to uncontrollable laughter. He is every angry teenager and emerging bright young man, an essence concentrated by his entrapment in a jerking body which can’t even masturbate. The irrepressible and kindly Rowdy fixes him up, and strikes up an even more “inappropriate” arrangement with Aunt Twyla. (“Mildly retarded and well hung. Few can resist” he says smugly, causing another explosion of shocked mirth).
It is brilliantly shocking, yet deeply kind: lurching through the worst vicissitudes of unlucky lives towards a tragic but redemptive ending. For retarded or not, Rowdy’s right: you gotta fight, because nobody else will. Though I did reflect that if the play was British, its humanity would be diluted with political ranting against benefit cuts. Oddly, the fact that it isn’t makes you all the more inclined to rant against them yourself. Such people deserve everything.