Saturday marked my first trip to see socially distanced theatre in an indoor space since before lockdown. The audience were suitably spaced out within the Bread and Roses theatre, and wearing masks, so I felt quite at ease as I settled in to watch the show. I will happily return there to see more shows in future.
Written by Michael Dunbar (who also plays our lead) ‘F**k Off’ tells the story of Henry M’Gill, a young man who attempts to escape his underprivileged background by excelling in the world of boxing. Dunbar has written a thoughtful and evocative character study as we meet Henry, who is unravelling as he fights to hold on to success. His self-destructive tendencies are vividly brought to life. This is a dark play, but there is a lovely vein of humour within it that lands well, and prevents this from turning into a grueling evening of theatre. I felt engaged by the piece throughout, but I did leave feeling a little unsatisfied that important plot elements weren’t clearly resolved, and at times it was hard to be sure where I was (time wise) in relation to the opening scene. However as Henry’s character development is so satisfying, I nonetheless felt the emotional impact of the play.
‘F**k Off’ is brought to us by Integrity Theatre , a newly formed theatre company working to become an example for working-class people and creatives. Based on the quality of this show, I will definitely be keeping an eye on what they do next. ‘F**k Off’ is beautifully cast. Dunbar brings a fierce desperation to the part of Henry M’Gill that is compelling to watch. Hayley Mitchell is sympathetic as Jess, Henry’s girlfriend/ex-girlfriend (depending on when we are), giving us a convincing sense of a woman who continues to care for her ex despite herself. Arieta Visoka is fiesty and self-absorbed as Karolina. There is a scene where she is glued to her phone and she successfully lands the funny side of it, without detracting from how provocative her behaviour is. Finally we have Thomas Winter as Billy Boy, Henry’s friend/coach/manager, who has the toughest job as he is the hardest to pin down as a character (possibly because of some of the time jumping clarity issues). Winter brings an engaging energy to the role and really lands the sense of Billy Boy being ill-equipped to be the friend/confidant that Henry needs. Their shared background, which Henry hoped would keep him grounded, is actually a hindrance, as they are both struggling to adjust to Henry’s success in their own ways.
This production absolutely shines during a boxing match scene that has all four of our cast on stage at the same time. Directors Taoana Tsiki and Christopher Lowry really nail the energy and choreography of that scene. I never thought I’d be that riveted listening to the description of a fight. Each character has a distinct voice and perspective that adds wonderful depth to this key moment in the play. In fact, overall this is a very tightly directed and intelligent production, that brings Henry’s world to life in an intimate space. They cram a lot of big emotions on to a small stage.
I can’t tell you to go see the show, as I was in on closing night, but I suspect this production is likely to have a future elsewhere, and it is well worth catching. Ideally followed by a Q&A, for those, who like me, leave craving clarification.