Bouncing off the walls!

Bottleneck at Soho Theatre

Bottleneck tells the coming-of-age story of fourteen-year-old, Greg, who has to keep face in light of school kid taunts, groundings & earning his way in life. Without giving the game away, there’s a twist that makes this much more than a typical teen’s recollection of day-to-day events. At the Soho Theatre.

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Bottleneck tells the coming-of-age story of a fourteen-year-old who has to keep face despite Sarah-Jane’s snide remarks about his cheesy penis and attempts to have her way with him on the floor of the school toilets. It’s a hard life. Not only that but Greg’s dad is very much a “you have to earn your way” type father figure, one that doesn’t put up with any nonsense – and to that end, poor Greg has to work bloody hard to earn money in order to watch a football game that will no doubt change his life. By begging, borrowing and stealing (literally), Greg and best friend Tom manage to scrape the funds together – but not before throwing a rock at a policeman, which subsequently gets Greg belted and grounded. Defying his father, Greg gives him the finger, bounds off into the night, hops in a Reliant Robin, and meets Tom for the match of a lifetime. Just when Greg thought life was hard enough, he’s about to learn the biggest lesson…

James Cooney’s performance is encapsulating from the very beginning of this one-man show. As the audience wanders into this teenager’s bedroom; one can tell that Cooney is totally “in the zone”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance with so much energy; he really lights up the stage. Saying that, it’s never too much – and by that I mean the audience can still relate to Greg’s bouncing-off-the-walls persona. Cooney strikes a balance in every sense; he is simultaneously extreme and subtle, extroverted and meek, emotional and still. Speaking through the eyes of a teen, this performance is both hilarious and touching. You don’t see an actor portraying a fourteen-year-old boy. You see a fourteen-year-old boy trying to tread in a man’s shoes.

Cooney captures the sense of this difficult age and his performance triggered my memory and sent me zooming back to the school playground, where such lads used to give it the gab in order to get the “fittest” girl (usually the ones who painted their face to a shade of Tango and rolled their skirt up to their arse), whilst secretly seeking approval and acceptance. Cooney gets under the skin of this troubled ADHD teen and delivers a believable and well-rounded performance. On top of that, he also embodies the other characters in Greg’s life: his odd and cabinet-obsessed dad, the terrifying slapper Sarah-Jane, and probably-gay best friend Tom – to name but a few.

Director Steven Atkinson deserves as much recognition as Cooney. This production solely relies on Cooney’s performance, a solid script and the vision to do each justice. There is no set, minimal props, no distractions – just a man/boy and the text – and Atkinson’s direction explores every part of the play in absolute vividness. Don’t ask me how but you can even sense the play is set in another time and place; namely the late 80s, Liverpool. I loved the way Atkinson uses music to shake up the audience; for instance, when Greg touchingly bids farewell to his best friend – a tear was about to fall but before I could blink to release it, music blasts out, immediately preventing any form of indulgence. This approach synced with the general message; you just get on with it.

Atkinson directs this coming-of-age story with recognition of what it means to be a teen, and also what it means to be an adult dealing with these adolescents. All the roles contained within the play are given the attention they deserve and there are no stereotypes or easy fixes – each part of Greg’s story and every detail is explored to the full. Thanks to the delivery of this encapsulating story, there wasn’t one moment where my mind wandered.

This brings me onto the play itself. Luke Barnes’ writing is excellent; witty, unsettling, moving, funny and the language and character’s loose tongue is just what you’d expect from a fourteen-year-old. The script contains the right balance of adult and child; imperative in conveying a story that, towards the end, becomes so much more than a typical teen’s recollection of day-to-day events. Luke Barnes’ play reminds you that the loud and foul-mouthed teen – which you could easily slap if push came to shove – is in fact just a child finding his feet in the adult world; an adolescent which (despite insults of “Quaver-smelling pussies”, “wankers” and “paedos”)  is actually still innocent, and very vulnerable.

Date reviewed: Friday 22nd February 2013
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