14 February 2019.
“I’ve got two dads. One’s white. One’s black“.
David Judge’s new play unflinchingly explores identity, race and family through the lens of his own experiences, as a mixed-race child adopted by a white man.
Performed as a monologue by Judge, the story is told from the perspective of Dave, a white Mancunian. Dave develops a relationship with Joanne, who is expecting a baby. When she gives birth to her son David, Dave feels a bond between the three of them that has the “makings of a family” even though he is not the biological father.
However, David’s father was black, and he is now a mixed-race child being raised by two white parents. When Joanne leaves, and Dave becomes the sole guardian, things become more problematic.
As well as the funny looks and hateful words, social workers struggle to get the relationship to fit neatly within their procedures, and Dave’s Irish mother “sees brown as something hard to call her own“.
Judge’s script pushes back against the labels that others have sought to impose upon him over the years. “I’m half-caste they say… I’m coloured some say”. He seems reluctant to be boxed in by an assigned category or identity, focusing instead on family, a sense of place and the concept of ‘home’.
His characters are rooted in 1980s south Manchester, and in particular the streets of Wythenshawe. Familial bonds are strong if messy. Dave drives a Ford Capri. David listens to Michael Jackson on his Walkman. There are occasional holidays at Butlin’s in Pwllheli. It’s all evoked with engaging authenticity.
Designer Katie Scott’s ingenious garage set is a ‘manly’ space. A place where Dave can relax while tinkering with cars. Somewhere for him to reflect and talk. A lifetime’s memories are stored away in there, boxed up and on shelves – photos, old toys, trophies and music.
A car frame sits centre stage. Its single recognisable form made up of several different coloured parts. Dave will repair, replace and customise the vehicle while his wider world evolves and changes. Most of the play’s action occurs within, upon and around that car. Judge weaves himself sinuously through the bodywork as he drives the story forward, and effortlessly shifts between the various characters he portrays.
It’s an extremely charismatic performance – flowing seamlessly between an engaging conversational tone, more abstract story telling, and raw emotional depths. There’s a slight dip in energy and focus as the production approaches its final section, but nothing that tighter direction and some judicious editing won’t resolve.
Judge’s writing is poetic and powerfully direct. The language is lean and deliberately unfancy. Dave’s complaint that he has been “interrupted”, results in his sister accusing him of using long words. When emotions run high, speech becomes increasingly elliptical. A bar brawl is reduced to a fierce flow of single words, an insistent rage-fuelled rat tat tat.
A touching tenderness fights for space within the tough talk. When Dave checks in on his sleeping son each night, it is to “take his headphones off him. Replace them with a kiss”. In his actions as well as his words, the depth of his feelings for David are plain to see. As well as exploring the complex issues of identity entwined within this specific father/son relationship, the play attempts to get under the skin of Dave’s motivations in being so determined to be a parent to David.
Before he starts his performance, Judge carefully places a photo of himself and the man he calls ‘dad’ at the side of the stage. Unsurprisingly, SparkPlug feels deeply personal, it’s a vivid and compelling labour of love.
Images by Alex Mead