There's a particular kind of theatre for which we don't have an easy label. In it, the performer (for it's usually a solo show) spends his time (for it's usually a man) toying with the audience, making clear that this is an artificial, theatrical set-up and that he would really rather not be doing all this in front of us because, frankly, if he has any opinion of us it is a kind of contempt, but he loathes himself even more, and yet in the end the choice between going through all this suffering and pointlessness and the alternative of not being alive to suffer is a no-brainer. As you can see, that's on the long side as labels go.
Will Eno's monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing) falls into this category. Thom spends an hour testing the audience's toleration of him as much as his of them: he keeps making feints towards audience participation, embarking on potential dialogue with punters then replying for them or closing the avenue off before they can open their mouths. For what he has to say is so much more coruscating. Sometimes he describes events in his life – particularly during his childhood – in the third person, but he's not fooling anyone. When he remarks of a romantic/sexual relationship, "We were pretty compatible, for a while there, what with the dick and the cunt," there is not an instant's doubt but that the callousness is fully intended to rebound against himself. Even when it seems that all his agony is distilled in the loss of this relationship, it doesn't occur to us to just slap him and tell him to get over it, because this gradual focusing inwards has been so magnetic.
It could easily be a recipe for maximum annoyance; indeed, in much of the genre, it is. But Eno finds that elusive balancing point at which the bile, inward and outward, is in equipoise with the fascination of the character's restless intelligence. It's as if Thom might be right about it all, especially in James Urbaniak's simply magnificent performance. Urbaniak pitches every pause, every switchback, every throwaway, such that it does not just keep the one-man-on-a-stage experience animated but always suggests another particle-wide beam of insight into both Thom's thoughts and feelings, his complex strategies of dealing and of avoidance. Immediately after Edinburgh, the show transfers to Soho. It should be seen.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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