Richard O’Brien’s new play “What Goes Up,” which is currently playing late nights in C Soco, observes a teenager’s dismay when his mother takes up with a new “male friend.” Whereas this scenario would promise to be fraught at the best of times, these people have embarked on a holiday to Wales and they will all be sharing a single tent together. I suppose that we would feel cheated if they had a lovely holiday, but the very premise of this play is as guaranteed to produce chaos as a waiter who is laden with plates of soup and walking towards that proverbial banana skin.
What goes up is the tent. As Tychy‘s music festival memories include fighting for three hours to beat a tangled heap of canvas into the shape of a tent, and lying in a tent full of vomit listening to the campers next door complaining about how bored they were, my re-acquaintance with the horror of tents made me suddenly thankful for the sophistication of Edinburgh’s own festival, which does not require camping. The cast build their tent pretty quickly – although the show would be a disaster if they spent the first forty minutes trying to erect it – and there are various grimly-recognisable jokes about horrible camping cuisine and campsite toilet debacles.
The infuriated but emotionally vulnerable teenager Adam (Amyas Bale) and his hopelessly cheery mother Linda (Eleanor Hardy) are little more than cartoon characters, but the biggest beast in the circus is Linda’s male friend Bernard, who is splendidly evoked by Jack Hackett, as a wretched old frump of a man whose powers are now wandering. He is at first compos mentis and only a little peculiar, but his almost imperceptible slide into senility is accomplished with an expert hand. Imagine Professor David Starkey playing King Lear, and you have some idea of this character’s ponderous, cantankerous whimsicality. There are moments when the play seems to freeze and, with everybody stuck helplessly, we are left to enjoy long and rambling speeches from the decrepit Bernard. You know, as an English professor he had specialised in writing articles about insects in the nineteenth-century novel. Long, dazed pause. “Or was it incest?”
But Richard O’Brien is a young writer, his play is foremostly a stylistic exercise, and one will be disappointed if expecting a realistic drama. The course of events and the final sober reconciliation are predictable, but whilst there are few surprises, the dialogue and the interaction between the warring characters are very well done. Happily, the tent comes down in the end, allowing campers and audience alike to retreat to the comforts of home.