26 September 2019.
Box of Tricks at The Lowry, Salford.
“We’re not friends okay, and that’s fine, more than, but could you just . . . I don’t want to talk, alright?“.
Paul’s desperate plea to Michael to be left alone isn’t the most obvious indication that a friendship is about to form, and yet it does. One that spans decades. Wanting to talk? Well, that’s another matter, and Daniel Kanaber’s new play explores the empty spaces that can exist between men, the things that go unsaid even between friends.
On three nights, each ten years apart, we see the two men spending time together alone. Just them, their thoughts, and what they chose to share. On that campsite in France as teenagers, then as twentysomethings in a beach hut, and finally in their thirties, as Christmas approaches, Michael and Paul talk . . . and just as often don’t.
Much of their conversation is about what has happened outside of those three nights. So we hear about Michael’s mum’s illness, or Paul’s dad’s problems at work, girlfriends, drug-fuelled antics, pleasures and pressures. Details mostly emerge piecemeal, randomly and reluctantly. Often information is only shared when asked for, the important stuff isn’t always volunteered. Although they seem comfortable with each other, words don’t always seem that easy. Just as we can find ourselves working hard to piece everything together to get a fuller picture of their lives, so they are too, carefully navigating each other’s hidden depths and unspoken hurts.
Over the three decades, they evolve as individuals. Restless ‘jack the lad’ Michael slips steadily into life as a seemingly content family man, while Paul has a more bumpy ride from clever introverted schoolboy to successful but unsettled entrepreneur.
The bond between them can seem hard to decipher. What starts out as an attempt by young Michael to be a ‘good guy’ and help out bullied classmate Paul, develops into a long-term relationship for reasons that aren’t always clear. While it may be an attempt to highlight the gaps and compromises that can exist in male friendships, that incompleteness leaves you wondering not just how well they really know one another but more critically, what is it that keeps drawing them back into each other’s company.
There’s a lot of quiet in the play – pauses, whispers, mumbled words, sentences trailing off . . . It can help create tension at times, intrigue, and even draw you in closer but, especially under a blue ‘moonlit’ night sky, it’s a technique that can also occasionally cause attention to drift. Director Adam Quayle seems alert to the risk and so there’s a lot of movement and nicely judged pacing, but there are moments when it could be tighter.
Silence is depicted as a double-edged sword. That Michael and Paul are content to sit together and gaze across a night sky without anything being said feels like a reassuring (and affectingly portrayed) indicator of the depth of their friendship. Yet there are glimpses of the darker side of not speaking up, most pointedly the discovery that a former school mate has taken his own life. “Was on Facebook. Killed himself . . . Everyone writing how happy he was, sorted out.”
Designer Katie Scott’s simple circular stage, beneath a glowing moon and sprinkling of stars, is surrounded in darkness. Chris Hope’s music adds warmth to the chill. There’s a dreamy quality to it all, as if the two men are not so much on another planet but insulated for a time from the world around them. They can see bits of it, hear voices from outside, but are visible only to one another.
As the two friends, Darren Kuppan and Kyle Rowe skilfully depict the transition from boyhood to manhood both physically and emotionally, each mapping out the changes in their characters with thoughtful precision. Their nuanced performances hold the attention, explicitly exposing the vulnerability at the heart of this subtle and considered portrait of male friendship.
At the Lowry until 28 September and then touring to Huddersfield, Liverpool, Crewe, Hull, Ormskirk, York, Leeds, Newcastle, Mold and Whitehaven.
Images by Alex Meads/Decoy Media