Institute of Nuts
Matchstick Piehouse Theatre
Reviewed – 28th March 2019
“a powerful commentary on toxic masculinity in modern society”
Mark Daniels’ new darkly comic play Institute of Nuts at the Matchstick Piehouse Theatre offers a powerful commentary on toxic masculinity in modern society. In the era of #MeToo, the need to address the pervasiveness of dangerous notions of manhood has become an increasingly pressing issue, and The Institute of Nuts puts a spotlight on how widely and blatantly these attitudes are encouraged.
The play follows sixteen-year-old Billy (Theo Toksvig-Stewart) as he navigates his new life at the Institute of Nuts, a training camp-cum-prison run by the Miss Trunchball-esque E (Tori Louis) who addresses her students only through screens. Billy is renamed B and is introduced to the effeminate P (Christian Andrews) and the Institute’s only female student, O (Molly Ward).
The trio take lessons on self-confidence, feelings and bravery led by the sportswear-clad M (Craig Abbott) in which they are told to lie, use violence and suppress their emotions (except during the “FA Cup, World Cup and Shawshank Redemption”) if they want to succeed. After lessons, B, P and O are encouraged to play games and listen to music that endorse hypermasculine behaviour.
B quickly learns the Institute’s quirks such as chanting “I am strong; I am powerful; I am the best” before every lesson and striking bodybuilder-inspired poses whenever E appears on the Institute’s screens. The justification for anything questionable is “because it is established” which echoes popular phrases like “boys will be boys” used to excuse bad behaviour. Distorted versions of Spice Girls’ songs play between scenes (music composed by Dan Bramley) to remind the audience just how far we are from ideas of womanhood.
The play’s staging combined with its direction (Edwina Strobl) is highly effective in emphasising an environment of repressive expectation and surveillance. The audience sits in an oval arrangement around the stage and screens hang high on walls at either end. The screens show E keeping a beady eye on her students and periodically flash with images of James Bond, football and the rapper Skepta. The position of the screens outside of one’s immediate eyeline means that the audience also often finds themselves being unexpectedly observed which adds to a general sense of unease.
Louis shines throughout the play with a presence which rightly dominates the space. Andrews builds in confidence and is successful in delivering a powerful and emotional finale as the students discover the Institute’s true intentions. The plot is appreciatively subtle in its themes during the first half, but the second half is rather blatant in its message which at times is a little on the nose and over-literal.
Importantly, Institute of Nuts reaches its dramatic climax with an iteration of the facts. 70% of suicides are committed by men, 95% of mass shooters are men and 95% of the United States’ prison population are men. Perfect, powerful, “I’m alright” men as P describes them. Institute of Nuts forces the viewer to confront the toxic masculinity that infiltrates everything from cultural institutions to benign leisure activities and consider how realistic the existence of such a training academy really is.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Oli Sones
Institute of Nuts
Matchstick Piehouse Theatre until 12th April