Loyalty is an odd thing. It embraces so many concepts: ideas, people, identities, countries, the list is endless. But no matter how much someone expresses their loyalty to something, there is a breaking point, when they have to consider which is more important, their loyalty or themselves. And this, I believe is the message that is at the heart of Robin Hooper’s new comedy Broken Lad which has recently opened at the Arcola Outside Theatre.
In a run-down backstreet pub in North London, Phil (Patrick Brennan) is about to take a gamble. Once a household name, his star has fallen, and he hasn’t worked for a long time. However, tonight could be a new beginning for Phil as he is doing a stand-up gig in front of a live audience. The event has been organised by Ria (Yasmin Paige) who is not only the girlfriend of his estate agent son Josh (Dave Perry) but also has a connection to a major player in the entertainment business. Phil is nervous but is reassured by the presence of his faithful friend/companion/assistant Ned (Adrian McLoughlin). Also attending the event, though maybe not as welcome, is Phil’s ex-wife and Josh’s mother, Liz (Carolyn Backhouse). As the time for the gig draws closer, Phil’s nervousness increases and truths that should be deeply buried begin to emerge.
My first thought on leaving the theatre after seeing Broken Lad was that I had missed something? The play is described as “a subtle examination of masculinity and virility in distress.” But I’m afraid it did not come across to me like that at all. As I have said in my opening paragraph, it felt like a play about loyalty and how far someone could push others before that relationship broke down. Phil is not a likeable character. In fact, he is pretty despicable as a human being. Without going into too much detail, everything that is wrong with his life can totally be laid at his feet. Despite what he seems to think – and boy does this guy have an entitlement complex – he is totally the architect of his own downfall. That would be fine if Phil was the only dislikeable character in the play, but I can honestly say, none of the people in Phil’s life had many redeeming characteristics. Josh was an annoying whiner who, to my mind, would not have lasted a minute in the estate agent world. Ria – again no spoilers – but she was not a nice person. Only Liz was reasonably OK. A good old-fashioned mother who does everything she can to protect her son, even if it turns him into a wimp. As a middle-aged, single gay man who would like a real relationship, I should have found it easy to identify with Ned. Unfortunately for me, the character came across as a sad parody of a sad, lonely man lusting after something he couldn’t have and desperate to find ‘the one’.
If writer Robin Hooper set out to make these characters unlikeable then hats off to him. The story itself is fairly conventional, and again no spoilers, but there were no surprises along the way and the ending was pretty much obvious fairly early on. I was quite surprised with the way the story flowed as well. It seemed that, no matter how often Phil said he wasn’t there when someone knocked, there was some sort of open-door policy in the dressing room, but it had a maximum occupation level so there were never more than three people in at a time. So it felt like for another character to come in, somebody had to leave, which gave the narrative a bit of an uneven feel, particularly as there was a large amount of lying going on throughout.
However, enough negativity, what did I like? Well, the performances were on the whole good. Brennan, as Phil came across an old-fashioned comic of the worst sort. The type that uses humour as a weapon rather than as an observation on life or a way to enrich people’s lives and enjoyment. You could imagine him in his heyday, black tie, pint in hand, telling stories about his mother-in-law, people from other countries and ‘birds’. Having worked with my drag queen brother in various pubs around the country, I do have to praise Cecilia Trono’s set which really reminded me of the dressing room in an old pub in Oldham where we once performed. There was the perfect air of desperation and dirt about the room, and you could just imagine the dust bouncing off the sofa when you sat down, the beer bottle marks on the ‘dressing table’ and the smell of stale air and lost hope that those rooms seem to have.
Overall, I have to be honest and say Broken Lad just didn’t work for me. The characters were all unlikeable, with nobody ever seeming to have a redemption moment. The story was obvious and I felt there was something major missing, such as a final confrontation scene between everyone. The ending was no surprise, and my final thought when I left was goodbye and good riddance to the lot of you.
Review by Terry Eastham
Above a pub in North London, Phil is fighting off panic about his comeback gig.
Once a regular stand-up on Saturday night television, Phil’s back to square one. Dropped by his manager, he finds himself with only his old friend Ned at his side, whose friendship increasingly feels like unrequited obsession. As Phil laments his dwindling career, his son arrives believing that his dad harbours a damaging secret. With the gig hour nearing, old flames and past misdemeanours catch up with the family. Tonight, Phil’s career might not be the only thing in tatters.
Comic and moving, Broken Lad is a subtle examination of masculinity and virility in distress.
This show is part of Arcola’s outdoor festival Today I’m Wiser.
Cast: Carolyn Backhouse, Patrick Brennan, Adrian McLoughlin, Yasmin Paige, Dave Perry
Creative team: Cecilia Trono (Set and Costume Designer), Millie Cousins (Stage Manager), Jamie Lu (Sound Designer), Cat Ryall (Production Manager), and Ellie Collyer-Bristow CDG (Casting Consultant).
Arcola Theatre presents
A new comedy by Robin Hooper
Directed by Richard Speir
13 October – 6 November 2021