By Taylor Mac
Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, W12 8LJ until 22 July 2017
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
It's all about pronouns here. 'Hir', pronounced 'here', is the preferred pronoun used by transgender people in place of him or her. This despatch from the front line of the gender wars won great acclaim in New York, and has singled out Taylor Mac as one of American theater's most interesting and distinctive new voices. Mac – who uses 'judy' (lowercase, sic) not as a name but as a gender pronoun – is an actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director and producer who has had work produced in most of America's leading theatres.
Despite the challenging subject matter of gender discombobulation this subversive comedy is literate and engaging combining a cool intelligence with a tart wit. Think of it as a Queer Roseanne and you're almost there.
Set during a scorching summer in a dreary suburban house in California's central valley, we meet Isaac (Arthur Darvill of Doctor Who and Broadchurch fame) who has just returned from serving in the US Marines only to find another kind of war has broken out at home. Ben Stones' 'kitchen sink' noir design works perfectly in a traverse stage.
Isaac's mother Paige (Ashley McGuire), a free spirit, has stopped washing, cleaning and caring for their ailing father. Once the fearsome patriarch he has suffered a stroke and been toppled from the head of the household to become a mere puppet in her regime. Her revenge on 30 years of controlling behaviour is to keep the stricken, near silent, man housebound whilst decking him out in a night dress and make up. Her ally in this macabre plot is Isaac's 17 year old sibling, Max (Griffyn Gilligan), who when Isaac departed was actually Maxine.
At first the play is reminiscent of the more strident gay or feminist agitprop plays of the '70s or '80s where revolutionary ideas (which in time would become mainstream) were first road tested, admittedly for a sympathetic crowd. Mac, obviously at the end of 'hir' tether with 'mediocre straight white men' has however crafted a play which engages the emotions whilst ranging across a panorama of ideas about gender and society. She's called hir style 'absurd realism' and Nadia Fall's deft direction totally nails this approach.
The quartet of actors are superb in turning characters who might have come across as intellectual cardboard cut-outs into living, breathing, humans. Even the totally mixed up Max is plausible. McGuire's Paige, always attuned to language, is a particular delight as the mother who is having the best of midlife crises. By the end though she is realising that annihilating one's past doesn't necessarily free you from it.
The reopened and much expanded Bush Theatre is a delight. This was Britain's great powerhouse for new writing for many decades when it was housed in a tiny room over the Bush pub on Shepherd's Bush Green. It has since relocated round the corner to a former library which has now undergone a stunning renovation.