Heroin(e) for Breakfast: Mercilessly Grim

Thursday 19th September 2019 at Harrogate Theatre (Studio).

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Philip Stokes’ play hits you like a high speed train. There’s no acclimatisation, just a smack around the chops at full pelt and from there it’s all intensity of one form or another. This production from King Brilliant Theatre reunites the original creative team ten years after Heroin(e) for Breakfast’s award winning debut at Edinburgh Fringe and with writer Stokes also directing, it’s a reunion to shake foundations.

Tommy is the kind of swaggering oggling guy you’d cross the road to avoid. The gobby idiot on the train who makes you shudder with his lack of filter or self-awareness. The twit in the local pub cracking jokes about the communal nuts. He’s definitely the kind of hideous monster trolling the internet from his man cave. Within minutes my skin was crawling and my patience was reaching the edge and that’s a real testament to the totality of Lee Bainbridge’s loathsome performance. It’s also only the very beginning.

When Tommy interrupts the facade to acknowledge his own repellent role in this rancid tale, there are mild glimpses of the harmless joker he perhaps once was but alas, any such moments are fleeting and dashed to bits with an inane bit of grim ‘banter’. He’s a real corker of a character, and it’s in Bainbridge’s breakneck performance that we are given a disturbing study of exactly what lies behind some of the closed doors we never bother to think too much about.

Edie (Kiera Parker) has somehow fallen for Tommy, perhaps the only local man to be able to boast of his skills for simultaneous belching and thrusting. Presumably in defiance of her young age and the objections of those around her, she’s clinging to him like a drowning sailor does his bottle of rum. She’s a snarling little girl in way above her head and she’s too petty to care. Flat mate Chloe (Kirsty Anne Green) is all surly side eye and brutally worse for wear after a night on the razz. There’s a deep depressive air hanging around the character and Green gives a performance which develops into something truly devastating, bringing a human casualty front and centre in Stoke’s war on ignorance.

You see, the lot of them are hooked. Our Marilyn garb-clad villain arrives as a sensual devil with an eye for the drag aesthetic and an American drawl dripping with dramatic over-emphasis. With her she brings tall promises and a grimy glamour, all nicely reflected in Craig Lomas’ lighting and sound design. Heroin(e) (Amy-Lewise Spurgeon) leads all three of our down and out characters to ruin but she does it with such patriotic venom and such threatening coercion that they can’t possibly notice. What Heroin(e) promises is freedom from all restrictions and all shackles of modern life. She’s saviour and heroine…of sorts. It’s undoubtedly timely and it reflects boldly on the culture clash raging all around us between the ‘snowflakes’ and the ‘alts’ but also those in between who get less exposure. 

The two women are at loggerheads and Tommy sees them as his personal games console in one way or another. But that bubbling anger between the women finds explosive force in the final ten minutes when all bets are off and Stokes goes to town eviscerating everything leading up to the closing moments. Those closing moments cause loud sniffles and rustling for tissues no one expected to need. It’s a far cry from the opening tone and it begins to unpick some of the hardness we’ve been building towards the characters, though in truth, the damage is done.

Stokes’ writing is nothing if it isn’t controversial and uncomfortable, and all the while the bile spews, there’s no denying the accuracy of the underlying lecture being dripped into our veins – it is, beneath the shocking script, a damning social study on a troublingly small scale. Nothing is off limits and everything is ripe for for a take-down; racism rears its gnarly head with a sharp flippancy and addiction arrives with all guns blazing. Tommy embodies things the population enjoys or despises. It’s not for the faint hearted but it is perhaps for everyone in that it’s one hell of a gruesome wake-up call to a society drowning in discord and addiction without a solution in sight.

This cast deliver a tale that’s hard to watch with performances earning a standing ovation at the show I saw. It’s not because the play is beautiful or inspirational, but because there’s a sense of collective awe at some of the scenes just witnessed – each actor seems to dig ever deeper to meet the fearlessness of the others and that makes way for some  of the most intensely unpleasant theatre I’ve seen in a good long time. It’s visceral, it’s merciless and it’s also surprisingly moving just when you think you can’t stomach any more. I couldn’t watch it again but I have to commend the grit and ruthlessness of staging this piece.

Heroin(e) for Breakfast plays Harrogate Theatre until September 21st 2019 and you can find tickets here. Age advisory: strictly 16+. Warning: DO NOT watch with your sweet ol’ Uncle Bernard and/or Aunt Doreen.

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