Reviewed – 7th August 2019
“a production to enjoy for the spectacle – and not, perhaps, for interrogating the themes too much”
Male suicide rates may be falling, but three of every four people losing their life to suicide in the UK are men. Toxic masculinity is on the rise and better understood, and gender roles are being interrogated more than perhaps ever before. Time, then, for a scrutiny of ‘the masculine’, and this is what creator and performer Matt Franco sets out to do, with remarkable physical vigour, in Alpha Who?
In Franco there’s definitely a sense that the audience are seeing something special. The physicality of this hour-long, one-man theatre and dance piece is astonishing, and it’s no surprise that Franco is drenched in sweat by the time the show ends. He displays a real muscular exertion as he contorts and hurls his frame around in display of the tensions between emotional expression and traditional interpretations of masculinity.
This, though, is perhaps where the production falters. This central premise – that if emotions and vulnerability remain unexpressed, men suffer – is not a new one, after all. There are some striking expressions of the physical impacts of repression, including some uncomfortable but effective on-stage urination, but by the end it feels as though we’ve seen at least one too many scenes of torrid contortions as feelings are variously contained or expelled.
Given, then, that this central tenet of the hazards of male emotional illiteracy is well recognised, there are missed chances here for wider exploration through Franco’s remarkable skill in movement. Frustratingly, even in seeking to explore these themes, some of the existing hoary stereotypes are in fact further cemented; the programme says that ‘if we’re to heal wounds that men hold within themselves, we must first explore how to engage the feminine within’ which surely only serves to sustain the binary ‘emotions = feminine’ that the piece is seeking to disrupt.
Similarly, is it helpful that the on-stage screens that serve effectively as artworks, maps, shields and cages here are pointedly pink and splashed with shapes calling to mind female genitalia? The closing scene is full of the promise of redemption, as our everyman moves towards a fuller range of emotional expression – but in the staging, as pinkish light shines through a screen and silhouettes a foetal Franco, are we being told that to thrive, the ‘masculine’ must simply become feminine? A healthier ‘man’ might perhaps be one for whom emotional health has been defined on its own terms, without needing to continue with the binary of male vs female (and on that note, given that the complexity of gender and its expression is becoming more fully recognised, it feels neglectful that the over-simplicity of ‘male vs female’ isn’t acknowledged).
Missed opportunities feel especially frustrating here given the calibre on display. The quality displayed in lighting design is perhaps explained by the notably large four-strong team of Naia Burucoa, Gail Sixsmith, Saverio Tonoli and Franco himself, and the music, by Sabio Janiak, is excellent. Alpha Who? is a production to enjoy for the spectacle – and not, perhaps, for interrogating the themes too much, at risk of being disappointed.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Saverio Tonoli
Cockpit Theatre until 9th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: