Four years ago Michael Mears's one-man show Tomorrow We Do The Sky won a Fringe First in Edinburgh and transferred to the Lyric Studio. His latest solo piece Soup has followed the same route, and shows the same strengths of characterisation, although its flaws are more complex.
Tomorrow... recounted the narrator's experiences working in a factory canteen, and consisted of monologues and half-dialogues from a clutch of disparate figures, through which a narrative emerged. Likewise, Soup begins with an encounter in a launderette between architect Tim and street-person Dicky, and proceeds to draw portraits of Dicky and his comrades in their "bashes" under a railway viaduct as Tim visits them daily with a succession of designer broths: carrot and orange, curried parsnip, spicy tomato – "Stop making the soup so difficult!" protests the aged Irish indigent Patricia.
Mears is immensely talented at creating a character using minimal props – a pair of glasses, a battered hat or a headscarf – to signify a switch as he nips behind the makeshift drapery of Adrian Rees's set. Although a suspicion continues to lurk that one of the points of the show is to say, "Look, I can do all these characters," much of the ostentation and caricature of the earlier show has vanished; we are invited far less often to laugh at these people.
The tale told, too, is far from a simple one. As Tim's involvement with this community grows and they face eviction from their patch with the demolition of the viaduct, he engages in a crusade to obtain vacant council housing for them. He comes to be regarded by some of them as a saviour for various reasons – the chance of a home and a fresh start for Dicky, the joy of intellectual conversation for The Professor – but it all comes to nothing, and Tim seems by the end to have done more harm than good by offering false hopes.
At root, I suspect Mears' own motivation. Whilst this is far from a black-and-white story, the greys seem rather too painstakingly shaded in. The street-people's histories seem to comprise a checklist of modern misfortunes leading to homelessness: drink (Dicky), breakdown (The Professor), gambling (Leroy from St. Lucia)... only the betrayed ex-serviceman is missing. Mears the actor makes them individuals, but Mears the writer has apparently thought long and hard about assembling a collection of types.
Perhaps, in feeling that the show possesses only an artful facsimile of a heart, I am falling prey to the same liberal angst which underpins so many of Tim's actions. Certainly, Mears turns in a sharp performance – in fact, several of them. If Soup does not withstand sustained interrogation, it is no worse in that respect – and much better presented – than most "socially aware" theatre.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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