By Darby Turnbull
It’s all there in John O’Donovan’s title. It’s a mouthful, it’s slightly audacious and its verbosity immediately catches our attention. Cocaine is a play about barriers and the incremental things we need to transcend them; drugs, sweets, alcohol, touch to get to a sense of emotional and physical intimacy where you can actually let the things you want to communicate come out, whether they’re verbal or not.
This production of Cocaine featured in last year’s Fringe festival, and it returns once again directed by Christian Cavallo and produced by Gavin Roach, this time joined by actors River Stevens and Asher Griffith-Jones. Their two performances make another visit (or several) essential.
Under Cavallo’s superbly detailed, emotionally finessed eye these two young performers build a relationship with palpable, blistering intensity. Mikey and Casey who exist on the fringes, not just of their small, rural Irish town but with other queer men who they might have solidarity with. Nineteen-year-old Casey is deeply closeted, and also being nonwhite in what is inferred is a mostly Anglo-Saxon community is deeply aware of the threats that exist within his family, he sports a black eye and the community at large. Casey, slightly older, has learned to fight back in exchange for living openly and has been hardened by a lifetime of poverty, violence and abandonment. O’Donovan’s text rawly explores a type of queer masculinity we very seldom see and rarely with as much insight and nuance. There are the types that leave for some relative security and thrive in metropolitan areas and those that stay and either keep their heads down or fight. Mikey’s rage at the mendacity of both his former allies and tormentors belies a simplistic, false narrative of things ‘getting better’ and explores the cost of constantly having to defend yourself and becoming violently apathetic in the face of a society that views you in contempt.
River Stevens’ is blazingly good at inhabiting the many layers of Mikey’s character, an irascible scallywag, viscous thug, lovingly tender he has the rare gift of modulating the multitudes of a person in singular moments. He excels in combining the unhinged and calculating parts of Mikey with the naked wrench of his pain and anger. Mikey is a character who many would dismiss if they passed him on the street, but Stevens keeps the audience’s attention and empathy in an iron clad grasp.
Asher Griffith-Jones gives a subtler but no less impactful performance as the teenage Casey and though clearly a decade older than his character he holds himself in such a way that he disappears into the role, pulling of those most exciting of performance illusions by creating a finessed inhabitation of late adolescence. He and Stevens share a tentative but deeply felt chemistry and Griffith-Jones is able to add sublime moments of subtext of Casey being in thrall to Mikey’s magnetism and dawning realization that, like his mother, he could end up in a relationship with someone who takes out his rage on him.
The two actors work in electric syndication that make for some unpredictable and thrilling pacing; they earn the trust their audience places in them to take us wherever they lead. Needless to say, both their accent work and physicality convey class and emotional state with clarity.
Though a minimalist production the entire creative team has made careful decisions that illuminate their world. Casey Harper-Wood’s creation of a suburban roof is a fantastic piece of design that the actors clearly relish playing on. Jack Burmeister’s sound design is well informed, but the more emotionally driven compositions are sometimes more decorative given how strong the performances are but never obtrusive. Iz Zettl’s stylised lighting, specifically the mis en scene for the bumps of cocaine create many attractive and titillating moments at key moments in the production.
I very much enjoy returning to plays with different interpretations and I’m thrilled that Cavallo and Roach decided to revive this play which will undoubtedly prove one of the highlights of this fringe.