Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I Heart Peterborough: Fantasy and Reality in the Suburbs

Joel Horwood’s I Heart Peterborough is a beautiful, two-hander full of rich language, compelling performances, and a window into the lives of two people full of want.

Presented by the Eastern Angles Theatre Co. and premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it is the story of Michael/Lulu (Milo Twomey) and Hew (Jay Taylor). Michael is an unassuming gay, male office worker by day who transforms into glamorous lip-syncing Lulu* at home. Michael has spent his whole life in Peterborough, a suburban wasteland where nothing happens. It’s full of “human cul-de-sacs.” World events are always taking place outside it.

An unexpected teenage dalliance between Michael and Stephanie produces Hew. Stephanie (possibly schizophrenic) has raised Hew on her own. When she dies, teenage Hew must come to live with Michael. Though they've had it seems no contact before, now in this desperate situation the two must adapt to their new lives together.

Hew definitely does not fit in in this town. He's a little too intense with his classmates. He must maintain strict daily schedules knowing where Michael is at all times to avoid massive anxiety (unclear if he was autistic but seemed likely). Hew’s outcast nature is mirrored by Michael's. He’s never really fit in either. Since his teenage years, he’s been prone to relationships with men who are violent and mistreat him. He’s bent himself to the suit the situation and the people around him, but he's never quite found his own voice.

Hew and Michael come to offer each other some stability and support. Hew turns out to be a talented musician and singer. Michael still is trying to find love, acceptance and a sense of self. The two of them create a safe world for their fantasies behind closed doors. But when they try and take their dreams into the light, reality proves harder for both to maneuver. And those we trust the most are the ones who can hurt us the most.

Full of luxurious writing with vivid words and phrases (“slump clump,” “mary spiking,” “water diamonds in the blood warm Lido”) this play had a strong sense of people and place. Peterborough and all it's lifeless trappings becomes a fully formed character here.

Dead-end lives, in a dead-end place might sound like a downer, but the writing and performances kept this work electric and alive. Horwood uses a non-linear approach to the storytelling and adds cabaret-like musical numbers into the mix. Not always a fan of an experimental format, here I felt like I was in good hands. Even if moment to moment I wondered exactly what was going on, I felt fine going with the flow of the story and letting these characters tell me what was important. The overall arch was clear.

 Milo Twomey was moving as Michael/Lulu. Spending most of the show in half drag (some make-up, some undergarments and a wig cap), he finds specific, different voices for Michael/Lulu as he is at home and as he is at work. He is our narrator as well, setting the stage for various scenes of his life and the background flavor of Peterborough. Twomey really unlocked the musicality of Horwood’s writing and threw himself physically into the role. Jay Taylor was heart-breaking as Hew. Playing a vulnerable teenager wracked with anxiety and social problems he blossoms ever so slightly when he decides to audition for a band. Taylor did a fantastic job finding a subtle way to show that transformation.

 The elements of artifice and suburban garishness were echoed through the set design, low-rent “special effects” and sequined costuming. But there was something about the direction (also by Horwood) that felt a little stilted and claustrophobic. Though thematically appropriate to feel these characters trapped, I wish as an audience member I’d had a bit more room to breathe.

But a strong, unusual piece of writing and great acting. It was a wonderful discovery for me at the Fringe.

*My one complaint was that it was a unclear to me if Lulu was a drag persona or if Michael was a transvestite or transgender. I wish the materials had been more clear so that I could use the appropriate term.

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