Review: The Shy Manifesto – Live Theatre, Newcastle

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First published in The Times, Friday February 1 2019

Three Stars

It is fitting that Callum, the protagonist of Michael Ross’s new solo play, cites Alan Bennett as one of his literary and lifestyle role models. The 17-year-old sixth form student is the post-millennial descendant of one of the loner narrators of Bennett’s Talking Heads series of monologues. What he tells us during his 80-minute torrent is far less significant than what he leaves out.

In a world full of attention-seekers and loudmouths, Callum (played with an endearing, twitchy energy by Theo Ancient) wishes to make a stand for all those who would rather sit in their bedrooms reading Philip Larkin, listening to Morrissey or communing with their fellow limelight-shunners on social media. His cultural touchstone is The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writers and unapologetic lone wolf. In the opening moments, Callum brandishes his dog-eared copy of the tome like a defensive weapon.

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Pic: Luke Newbold

Bennett’s emotionally closed-down characters may provide the theatrical template, but Callum’s solipsism, literary pretensions and ostentatious use of three-syllable words bear more than a passing resemblance to that other embattled chronicler of teenage angst and isolation, Adrian Mole. As in Sue Townsend’s series of books, Ross deploys wry humour to tell what is essentially a tragic story. Even the play’s title is ironic. What starts out as a defiant call for restraint culminates in a cringe-making scene in which Callum catastrophically loses his inhibitions at an alcohol-fuelled teenage party.

 

Cat Robey directs this bittersweet tale with clarity, deftly opening out the action on Charlotte Henery’s confined bedroom set, whose shelves and drawers open up to disclose the soft toys and action heroes of the boy’s childhood, which he uses to represent various peripheral characters.

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Pic: Luke Newbold

As Callum gets into his stride, the playwright makes nuanced points about the pressures and paltry prospects faced by today’s young as well as the double-edged sword of social media, which liberates on the one hand while carrying the perpetual risk of brutal exposure. Some lazy stereotyping, including the presence of a sassy, sashaying gay classmate amongst the supporting cast, reduces the script’s overall bite. Callum’s, though, is a fully realised voice, and Ancient’s performance grows richer as his character’s mask of bravado slips lower and lower. When the teenager shares his fantasy of doing away with the “hard copy” version of himself in favour of a free-floating digital entity the effect is both poignant and not a little chilling.

 

Touring to March 4. Theshymanifesto.com

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