Staged in an underground ex-car park, Grotty is a subterranean look at lesbian sub-culture. Daniel Perks is swept up by its toxic embrace.

Every so often you watch a production that redefines your perceptions of the art form, and more importantly, of yourself. Because as a gay man, I am one of the LGBTQ+ majority who, in multiplying and colonising Soho, have contributed to driving the lesbian subculture underground. And Grotty is a play that refuses to take that lying down. It stands up tall, puffs out its chest and proclaims,

‘I’m here, I’m queer, why aren’t you ok with it?’

It pins me to my seat, then forces me to sit up and take notice. It spits out venom against the heterosexual perception of normality yet craves much of its comfort and ease. It reveals the ugliness of humanity, observing that queer society certainly isn’t immune to bigotry or social status. As ‘others’, we continue to do the othering – we chastise and belittle, segregate and dominate, school bully style.

Grotty The Bunker

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson & Anita-Joy Uwajeh (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

And Izzy Tennyson’s writing captures it all in its natural habitat, the filth and dirt and thick, Grotty atmosphere that seeps into Soho basements, where lesbian club rooms are banished; into queer nights, where pixie-cut poetry slammers feign lesbianism to add edge; into Dalston warehouses, where serious, defiant lesbians crowd the Clam Jam and mark their territory. These are the choices that the next generation of women are presented with – pick your venue, wear your colours and God help you if you stray from one tribe to another. Young twenty-somethings like Rigby (Tennyson) are sniffed out by the blood hounds of those more established, the Toads (Rebekah Hinds) and the Nattys (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who reign supreme in their micro-pocket of safety.

Grotty The Bunker

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson & Grace Chilton (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

Because what Grotty shows us, in all its de facto harsh reality, is that we are all looking for our comfort blanket. We are all the ‘others’, and the only way we know how to feel safe is to adopt the heteronormative paradigm, the natural order of alphas and omegas that evolution dictates we categorise ourselves by. God forbid we buck the trend and become individuals, or create a community of equality. It didn’t work for Witch (Grace Chilton), relegated to the fringes of this sub-culture because of her eclectic sexual tastes.

Hannah Hauer-King makes sure that we are well aware of the edge, both physical and metaphorical, in this space. She uses layers and blocking, backstage disembodied voices and scenes tucked away in concrete corners, all to remind us that even this subsect of the scene has its comfortable centre and its alt-borders. Everything about Grotty feels tainted; we laugh at an absurd reality, one that from an outside perspective seems hellbent on oblivion. And Hauer-King’s vision screams with purpose – it’s a dark comedy in its purest sense.

Grotty Bunker Theatre

Izzy Tennyson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

This magical marriage of script with direction gives Grotty such circular momentum that the narrative cycles and spirals around like a gyroscope, never losing energy and never slowing down. The cast are seemingly caught in a paradigm that ensnares any innocent bystander brave enough (or stupid enough) to hop onboard its unending haunted-house ride. As an audience, we jump in without realising what we are strapped in for. The realisation is both excruciating and exquisite.

Rigby (Tennyson) speaks fast, firing out rhythmic prose with such rhythm that it could be spoken word itself. It leaves her mouth before it’s fully formed, hitting the audience in a stream of instantaneous consciousness, an insight into the psyche of the protagonist. Tennyson plays her leading character with a grotesque slant, one who self-identifies many of her flaws, but is so blind as to their foundations that she defensively projects them outwards onto everyone else. After overcoming some initial nerves, Tennyson’s performance is nail-biting in its execution. Rigby is a confused dichotomy – anti-confrontational and anxious, while also thrill-seeking and desperate for contact.

Grotty The Bunker

Grace Chilton & Izzy Tennyson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

And then we move on to the sexual partners, the jealous exes and the sage heterosexual friends – yes, in the world of Grotty, it’s straight friend Kate (Hinds) and confused love interest Elliot (Chilton) who seem to make the most sense.

Are we so set on breaking away from our cis-het contemporaries that we ignore any piece of sound advice they offer up?

Because here, Rigby is intrinsically self-destructive, a deep-set insecurity that manifests itself in the need to please, the need to lie, the need to seem damaged. All are ways of generating sympathy, which she can twist into intimacy. And the likes of Toad (Hinds), Josie (Uwajeh) and Witch (Chilton) are enablers. They don’t mean to be, it’s simply that they each have their own neuroses, their own vulnerabilities that are kept behind closed doors, so they aren’t mistaken for weaknesses. The three actors, playing a plethora of archetypes intrinsic to the queer scene, are highly competent chameleons. But in the end, each is also an enabler for Tennyson’s central, show-stealing performance.

Grotty The Bunker

Izzy Tennyson (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

The intricacies inherent in Grotty’s subject matter, subtly brought to the fore by Tennyson’s masterful writing and Hauer-King’s visionary direction, are themselves worthy of waxing lyrical. Each is central to the complexity and delicacy of this subculture, itself an ecosystem that is kept delicately out of balance by a myriad of sociological factors. Even the smallest of throwaway lines have deep-rooted subtext –

Being nice isn’t another kind of fetish;

To make someone happy is to compromise yourself;

Loving too hard is its own version of torturous foreplay, its own freakshow.

But the overriding reality from Grotty, a show that manages to be both in your face and withdrawn, is that all of us are damaged, continuing to perpetuate such destruction with vacuous prose and plays for supremacy. The way to fit in is to be the most mangled, the most broken – Rigby is so desperate to conform that she deforms her own character, her own sense of self-worth, her very identity.

Maybe that’s the balance we all have to strike to be accepted.

 

 

★★★★★

Grotty runs at The Bunker until 26 May 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.