MONSTER at the Park Theatre
“Hood writes like the lovechild of Sarah Kane and Irvine Welsh”
There’s a kind of irony in the fact that the first word spoken in “Monster” is ‘Boo!’. The word comes with all the associations of innocence and playfulness. We love the word; to speak it and to hear it. To surprise and scare, and to be scared in return. It is healthy. Part of growing up. It doesn’t make monsters of us.
It doesn’t take long for Abigail Hood’s explosive play to strip away the safety net and plunge us into much darker territory. The razor-sharp dialogue slices through the thickest of skins to expose a very different fear, and all of its synonyms. Monsters are no longer imaginary creatures. They live among us as schoolgirls, mothers, teachers, lovers. Hood has unleashed a frightening yet rather beautiful creature in the guise of a brilliantly crafted and performed play.
We are in a scrap of wasteland in Glasgow, 2006. Kayleigh and Zoe are bunking off school, drinking, smoking, flirting, and dreaming of running away to the Isle of Muck (it sounds metaphorical, but is actually a real island in the Inner Hebrides). In psychobabble terms, Kayleigh has ‘no filter’. Her teacher, Rebecca, tries to understand and tries to help, despite a husband who repeatedly warns her to step back. We soon see why Kayleigh never wants to go home. Home is where the hurt is. A mother who pimps her and punishes her in equal measure. The level of poisonous cruelty is quite shocking. The first of many questions – are people born evil or is it a result of their upbringing? – is raised. Gillian Kirkpatrick, as the Bible-quoting, whisky-toting mother pours incendiary fuel onto the debate with her grippingly caustic portrayal.
Hood writes like the lovechild of Sarah Kane and Irvine Welsh. The shock value is often underpinned by humour. The natural feel is matched by Hood’s own performance as Kayleigh. A brave (and possibly ill-advised decision) Hood pulls it off by probably being halfway under the character’s skin anyway having created her. Equally magnificent are the rest of the ensemble as they stagger along the line between the torturing and the tortured. Caitlin Fielding, as Zoe, encapsulates the dichotomy – we are never completely sure if her love for Kayleigh is real or merely a survival technique. Do you try to placate the monster or run away? Which could prove more dangerous?
Emma Keele is mesmerising as Rebecca, the liberal minded school mistress who reaches out a helping hand. It is no spoiler to reveal that she suffers the harshest bite. There is a heart-rending, graveside scene later in the play where Rebecca meets up with her now estranged husband, Steve (Kevin Wathen). Keele’s subtle facial expressions evoke years of grief and anger that words can only hint at, while Wathen palpably buckles under the weight of the cruelty of lives crushed by cruelty.
Violence crackles under the surface of this piece – with only one way to go. Whether you can see it or not, the horrific climax still comes as a shock. And it’s only the interval. The second act moves forward to 2019 with a dramatic shift in tone; acting as a kind of post-mortem on the past. Reconciliations come without redemption, and new starts never escape the tug of memories and those who cannot let them go. Director Kevin Tomlinson crosses over into the role of John, the new man in Kayleigh’s reconstituted life. His unconditional acceptance of the chaos into which he has unwittingly walked is the only slight dip in the narrative. But perhaps it is because there are no answers. Hood’s play provides plenty of thought, however.
What does it mean to be a ‘monster’? Can it be prevented? Is the worst possible version of a person the only one there is? What part should society play? What are the causes of extreme violence? How does one cope with loss? How does one atone? Indeed, in extreme cases, can one?
“Is this justice?” asks Rebecca towards the end of the piece. To put the question fully in context might reveal too much, though I think I can get away with: “Is it right that a murderer can go on to create another life?”. Guilt, bereavement, abuse, violence, blame, absolution all vie with each other in this remarkable play. Far from comfortable, it is – like the characters portrayed – complex and complicated, provocative, and punchy. It hits below the belt – but it is vital we feel the full force, and the throb as the fist is pulled back. Not to be missed.
Reviewed on 2nd August 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Ben Wilton
Previously reviewed at this venue: