[Review:] TIFO, The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London.
As the writer of this play, Kieran Dee has certainly nurtured an excellent comedy type, involving decoy assumptions and reinterpretations, subversions and juxtapositions, and Dee’s delivery as a performer is just as refined. An example of this is in our understanding that Kerry has a crush on his colleague, someone he romanticises and characterises as dreamy, delightful, who then remarks that she was so drunk the night before that she put on two pairs of knickers. Kerry then remarks again how wonderful she is, and our inability to match what we experience of his crush herself versus what he tells us makes for comic tension, and hence laughter. An excellent formula executed well throughout this performance.
The comical caricatures we are presented by the text, most relatable in their simplicity, also help to produce a commendable comedic effect. Dee provides us with just enough description to cause these characters to feel real and to paint a vivid picture of them in the mind, and, again, his delivery of these is most endearing, also.
However, this comedy type and its delivery, the very things that constitute the most endearing quality of this performance, become its downfall. There is a certain roboticism to this performance, and this is produced by a univocal and repetitive structure. The fluid and chronological narrative is at times broken and fragmented by constant quick-witted, comical remarks or superfluous and perhaps unnecessary details — one example of such an interjection being when Kerry begins to detail a football match he has watched with his father, breaking the narrative momentarily to mention that this was the first time his father hugged him. I elucidate: this is not an issue in this one example alone, but when this style of narration is so persistent, the character’s speech becomes denaturalised and thus seems unrealistic, and steady momentum is compromised. It very quickly starts to feel jarring, incomplete, incoherent, and puts the audience in danger of feeling as though they are straining to follow along with the original line of thought.
Comedy is certainly used very well in this performance but is so constant and so heavily relied upon throughout that tragic material feels underplayed. This underplaying is also due to the fact that these flippant and facetious comedic remarks are still being made during areas of tension, conflict and negative emotion. It is also because of Dee’s mechanical acting technique, but I shall elaborate upon this below.
In terms of the play’s essential political subject matter, I feel that the sociopolitical agenda could be far better integrated into the dramatic text, overall. As it currently stands, the dramatic text struggles, particularly as the play goes on, to balance and marry the personal story of Kerry’s character — his [nonexistent] love life, his relationship with and grieving for his father, etc — and the sociopolitical focus on racism [in football], White ignorance and White privilege. Whilst I do admire the play’s ambition to remind us of the human behind each of the commonplace ideologies and perspectives presented, the two narratives feel distinctly disconnected, overall. For example, what does Kerry’s inability to perform spontaneous small-talk with his work crush have to do with racism? It feels that moments like this are purely for us to bond with Kerry’s character and to settle into the world of the play, and this is acceptable early on but not throughout.
However, the points made by the text, especially with the simple but poignant analogy of the pie chart symbolic of the divisions or lack thereof of social privilege, are very resonant, topical and cogent. What makes this material so accessible and engaging is that our main character himself is unaware of all the answers whilst exploring, pondering and exposing truths to us. For example, he is unsure as to whether the name-calling in the latter part of the ‘We Hate Tottenham’ Chelsea football chant is offensive to Jewish people or if it should be taken as a peculiar term of endearment accepted by Jewish people themselves — which, of course, it should not be. When we are then presented the quick-fire list of elucidatory anti-racist facts at the very end of the play by a seemingly out-of-character Kieran Dee, this confirms the suspicions of our guiding protagonist and answers the questions his ponderings give rise to. This is most efficacious and revelatory.
I do, however, feel that this ending is stylistically incongruous with the rest of the performance, given its stripped-back, ‘non-acting’ aesthetic, and also feel that it would be even more powerful if Dee were not reading this list verbatim from a handwritten note that has been stored until now in the wings. I understand that he desires to deliver these facts perfectly, but there is no reason as to why he cannot memorise them without this written aid, especially if this is the very essence of a performance he himself has written. To clarify, this is another reason I would like the personal story of Kerry and the sociopolitical messages of the play to be better married; we are required to bond so greatly with a character who we must, ultimately, only see as a representation, a means to a political end, a revelatory guide. Either this play must maintain this psychological realism and aim through the narrative alone to have us question the ponderings of the protagonist and the actions of surrounding characters, or we should have a stripped-back and actor-led [as opposed to character-based] performance that aims to demonstrate, explore, reveal and expose, as opposed to emulate and typify. Otherwise, such serious morale at the end feels as though an afterthought, distinctly different from the enclosed, fictional narrative presented hitherto. Nevertheless, a very important and commendable objective here.
On to Dee as a performer. Dee has great energy throughout and is an engaging performer because of this, but there remain countless aspects of his acting that need substantial refinement. First, the ambit of his gaze. His gaze is restricted almost entirely to either side of the stage — predominantly Stage Left — meaning that he fails to issue his audience with significant and consistent eye contact, thus limiting the extent of potential audience engagement. Similarly, Dee regularly has his back to the audience, and these two things combined put an extreme strain on our ability to register and gauge emotion, expression and action, guiding audience attention away from what is important and essential to our reading of the play and towards the mere self-obscuring physical body of the actor himself. For a performance that is so set on having us feel, empathise, engage, this is an incredibly detrimental subtraction.
Next, we have transformativity. Dee has the seeds of great caricatures that he can call upon at will, caricatures that are immediately identifiable and comprehensible, humorous and distinct. For the most part, each caricature in itself is clearly vocally defined — but only vocally. Physically, however, these caricatures remain almost entirely indiscernible, only distinguished via Kerry’s turning from left to right to represent two different characters. There also persists a tendency for the voices he has chosen for these multiple caricatures to blend in with his ‘fundamental’, ‘natural’ voice when he switches from one to the other, and this is subtractive and disappointing. This is particularly true of early moments within his caricaturisations where he quickly ‘snaps out’ of his caricature and back into the character of Kerry to provide extraneous details of this secondary character or of this situation he has found himself in with them.
Then, we have pacing and the delivery of rising tension, which is an editorial, directorial and actor-led issue combined. When detailing moments of climax and great action, such as in his tense soliloquy about the increasingly rowdy and riotous football match he attends towards the middle-end of the play, Dee performs in a typical and cliché artificial manner, which consists of a rising intonation that suddenly drops and is replaced by a inflection that characterises doubt or question. Paired with the writing, we receive in quick succession hyperbolic descriptions of various happenings and of surroundings and the figures present within them, either interlinked with simple conjunctions only, such as ‘and’, or simply left as separate clauses and reeled off one after the other. This is a trend that has persisted, as evidenced in many documentations, amongst writers and actors for centuries now and is a dilute, sensationalist and unoriginal manner of presenting ‘climactic’ informations, devoid of true passion and intensity. The result is a hampered, unfulfilling and incomplete pre-packaged distress that is merely instantly recognisable and that cannot invoke any profound feeling in a spectator, especially a regular theatregoer. I would recommend a more naturalistic approach here, especially given the significance of these moments in relation to the sociopolitical focus of this play that really ought to invoke such palpable feeling in an audience if its messages are to be seen as useful, impactful and poignant, as opposed to mere regurgitations of recent societal developments.
I should clarify here: Dee clearly has great and palpable vitality and, above all, passion for his work, but it is merely technique here that is inadequate. I would recommend research into the fundamentals of the psycho-technique and into the definitions of mechanical and representational acting vs naturalistic. I think these will be of use to his career in the future if he desires to pursue similar works.
Finally, it is clear that nerves certainly got the better of this performer at times, as he seems to be holding back, especially during caricaturisations, with corporeal expressivity being unstable and insufficient at times. Notably, he is also acutely aware of his audience who seem to have dominion over the extremity of his performativity: the more extreme their reactions, the more energy we receive. This is evidenced by his direct acknowledgement of his audience when he first enters, gesturing to a specific audience member, with a “Hi” — which is most confrontational and hence subtractive, given that the rest of the play remains enclosed, with no use of direct audience address — and, later, with his stumbling over his lines, his development of poor diction, and his visible struggle to stop himself from laughing along with his spectators after delivering a punchline. These elements must be addressed by this performer, but such awareness and skill will come with time.
The only other note I have on performance is more of a directorial issue. I noted that there is a certain roboticism to this performance, and another reason for this is the overall continuous bipartite episodic structure: ‘scene, transition, scene, transition’, with each of these scenes covering distinctly separate content. Whilst I favour the epitomic riotous/rebellious song choice and, for the most part, the transitions themselves, having Dee frozen on the spot, ready and waiting for the music to stop and the lights to change in order to be able to start the scene, then bursting into action when this is the case, is perhaps the most robotic and forced element of this performance.
Finally, set and tech (lighting design by Sam Penn). Following on from my description of the transitions, tech for this performance is minimalistic, and this works well to complement the tense and busy text. The red washes, though somewhat disparate aesthetically, along with the aforementioned recurrent song, communicate well the urgency and starkness of the thornier material that we are presented.
In regard to set: aesthetically, this performance has extremely limited visual appeal, I must admit, not only with its unattractive theatrical properties but with their random scattering about the stage, as though merely to have it seem filled. It is clear that Millie has recognised this, either subconsciously or consciously, with an attempt to have Dee use the space as extensively as possible. This extensive use of space is beneficial for distinguishing the late scene wherein he locks himself in his house whilst his crush talks to him through the front door, or the bedroom scene wherein he details his broken shower and the mould its leaking water leaves down his bedroom wall — though I do find it odd that such a small room that is entirely consumed merely by the bed should somehow extend from Upstage Left to Centerstage in the scene where we watch him sleep, dreaming of attending the match with his father…topography needs to be addressed here. However, Dee’s use of space is not so effective in-between scenes that start and end in the same place, usually Upstage Right, as transitions simply see him running without purpose around the stage and then back into his regular position.
Having the beer bottle collections scattered around the floor, and having three of them in each where only one will be utilised, is most questionable. And the flags are too perfectly hung across the walls — again, as though there is an attempt to fill the entire wall space. It is acceptable to leave a great portion of the stage completely undecorated. Confining all action to one part of the stage is not a theatrical sin, but there must be reasoning behind all topographical decisions.