REVIEW: Penetrator (Lion & Unicorn Theatre) ★★★★★

We meet Max (Luke Willats) sitting on an uncomfortable-looking couch in his living room – littered with takeaway boxes, empty cans of booze, and a clothes horse full of greying undies – entertaining himself with some aggressive porn. Flatmate Alan (Paul Linghorn) interrupts his activities and the pair embark on an evening of drugs, reminiscing and banter, only to be disturbed by an unexpected knock at the door. It marks the arrival of Tadge (Steve Fitzgerald), childhood friend of Max and active soldier in military service. However, something is very wrong. Tadge is visibly shaken, splattered with blood and speaking of an attack, of torture and punishment. What transpires will spark unsettling tensions and resurface demons thought long-forgotten.

Uncanny Collective have reimagined the dark yet immensely witty Anthony Nielson play, which emerged in 1993 as a representative of “in-yer-face” theatre. The narrative is very well balanced, switching organically between laugh-out-loud comedy and serious discussions, skilfully delivered with the naturalness you’d expect between old friends. Max and Alan have a very ‘Peep Show’ dynamic, and you’d find it impossible not to crack a smile in the middle of one of their frantic dance routines around the living room, or the cruelness of their bro-like banter.

Watching this play is an intentionally uncomfortable experience, as opposed to a settled one: the relationships between our trio are as dysfunctional as they are intriguing, offering up alternative views on how masculinity manifests itself in the modern man. Uncanny Collective have ensured that ‘Penetrator’ explores the theme of trauma in the obvious ways – splatters of blood, explosive violence, crudely sinister voiceovers – but also with more insidious, subtle techniques. Willats and Linghorn throw so much energy into the early scenes that we are left at ease and unprepared for the shocking twist, or the various clues that they so subtly point towards during the conversations with Tadge – so that we ourselves become vulnerable to the trauma that lies in wait.

Willats’ performance as Max is particularly impactful; a man hiding behind bravado-fuelled need to entertain, to be the biggest voice in the room, whilst harbouring immense and buried psychological trauma. He approaches this dichotomy with a sensitivity and insight that comes from truly studying a character and trying to legitimately understand why he may adopt certain coping mechanisms and traits. When you learn that our trio of actors have previously performed ‘Penetrator’ together a number of years ago, their synergy makes complete sense – nothing feels disjointed or false; they have stepped back into familiar costumes.

You need to have the stomach for colourful language and not be too sentimental about teddy bears, but otherwise, this remake of Nielson’s dark comedy will gnaw away at your mind for days afterwards. Alongside content that is at times disturbing, Uncanny Collective’s handling of themes such as toxic masculinity and both physical and mental trauma is delivered with the vulnerability and tact that Neilson had intended. Absorbing and memorable.

Reviewed by Laura Evans


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