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Under the Dirt

Peter Humphreys sees Studio Salford clean up on their excursion to the Lowry Theatre

Published on February 4th 2009.


Under the Dirt

Under the Dirt is a play about hope, though the sole aspiration of its four disturbed characters is nothing more extravagant than normality. Written by Claire Berry, the play is performed as inter-cut monologues – the stories of Dave, Hattie, Jo and Tom.

Dave (Andrew Sykes) begins the 50-minute piece sharply-suited, cocksure, espousing the sheer simplicity of sex as he perceives it (“Everyone would be having sex 24 hours a day if they could, wouldn’t they?”). He finishes the play tie-less, spent and raw, describing the end of a defining love affair and the bitter past that guided its destruction.

Hattie (Annamarie Bayley) is a clever, self-aware depressive, always in danger of masking the depth of her character with a lacerating smile. But if her tranquillity fools us (as it did her terrified ex-boyfriends) there is no respite from Donna Coleman’s Jo or Andrew Yates’ Tom. Both have roles to relish – Coleman as a sexless junkie, hauling up her Adidas-tagged haunches to speed-rap in scouse of a life run on skag then derailed by the bevies. Transvestite Tom strikes an elegant profile, or deigns to tease us with his backless basque, before turning to recount the strippings and beatings of an adult life spent on the game. There is vitriol but rather than alienate, Tom colludes – Dodgy Rogey, Constable Potatohead, Spankman Stuey – once we know their habits, we too are thinking: ‘Give me a whipper any day of the week.’

If these two hog the humour, it is spat out in spite of themselves. Perhaps because we sense little redemption we can allow ourselves to believe they have made it in the struggle ‘to be themselves’. But that is forgetting all the sucking and stealing, and something they can never allow – guilt. It is always tugging at fully-functioning heartstrings, whether when viewing photographs of a traumatised taxi driver’s children or seeing home an elderly abuser who has again failed to destroy his conquest. When Hattie is told by a kindly nurse to ‘be herself’ she feels valued. Meanwhile, Dave tells us “I’m not like this” and Tom and Jo have no escape but through an audience. And while their humanity shines through at such moments, we still wouldn’t want to take them home.

The past lives of these characters are extraordinary, almost unbelievable, but the grounded talents of the actors make them compelling and convincing. In couples they occasionally perch upon the same simple cubes – the sole feature of the darkened stage – but though their stories come close to overlapping they are never allowed the luxury of connecting with one another. Each is gripped, almost strangled, by an isolating narrative and for the audience there is no escape.

Director Christopher Neil and assistant director Phil Minns took on Patrick Marber’s Closer, also with Studio Salford, in 2006 and much of the isolation of Marber’s characters is mirrored in this production. And if the characters of Under the Dirt lack the sophistication of their London counterparts, they are given a greater sense of dignity as they are allowed to march the stage, confront the audience, tease, fight against the light, before it fades and they freeze: the baton passed on, more secrets revealed. After a while the stage dynamics become as hypnotic as the performances and it is a credit to this Trickster Theatre production that time speeds by and we’re left wanting more, even if we fear there’ll be no happy endings.

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Studio Salford Out and About continues with Halfway at the Rose Theatre, Ormskirk (4 February; then at the Lowry Theatre, 26 – 28 March) and The Game of Two Halves at the Lowry Theatre (12 – 13 February). Click here for more details.

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