Saturday, 16 July 2016

Hobo - Jeffrey the Cat Productions (12 July 2016)

Near where I work there was an unused building on a street corner. It has now been demolished to make way for a new development which is prevalent in the area. Before then, on what the Americans might call a stoop, homeless men would sleep. There were regular faces and most of them were indigenous though by no means exclusively. There was also an external power point to which an old style transistor radio was plugged. Next door in the disused car park was a shopping trolley with a mishmash of clothes and other frugal belongings.

This all hits me in the face as I walk into the Blue Room studio.

The set is composed of green garbage bags piled up to the ceiling in the representation of an alleyway at the back of what we soon learn is a gay nightclub. Detritus is everywhere on the floor with a hovel of a sleeping area. On one of the milk crates in the centre of the space, an indigenous man – Tank (Maitland Schnaars) – listens to a transistor radio and drinks heavily. His world is soon to be rocked by intruders in the form of Fred (James Hagan), and later, Terry (James Taylor, also the playwright) who bursts into the alley from the nightclub’s back door.

The characters interact and entwine in surprising ways as the topics of homelessness, alcoholism, mental illness, male and indigenous pride, questions of identity, and father-son relationships are explored in warts and all fashion. The language is blunt, crude but not without humour. The characters are flawed but not without brusque charm. The scenario is all too real...

People going to and from work including myself would pass by those men on that stoop every day. They never asked for money. They were never any trouble. Nobody stopped to enquire about their wellbeing. Nobody stopped to help. Including me. It was if there were two polar opposite worlds, side by side, each aware of but ignoring the other.

As the play progresses I wonder how someone could end up in that situation. I wonder how they would cope – how I would cope. The play offers insights into the first of those two questions. The power of the production is in making you consider the third. It’s not subtle by any means but then life on the street is brutal and uncompromising.

Schnaars imbues his character with sly humour tinged with regret at past misdeeds. There is an inherent decency that shines through. Hagan plays the down on his luck ex-shock jock with straight forward contempt at all around him. His instantly recognisable voice is an asset and lends weight to the character’s bile. Taylor is Fred’s son Terry who initially comes off as a bit of a goofball but ultimately seeks his father’s acceptance. That’s a bridge too far for Fred who cannot contend with Terry’s sexuality.

For most of its length Hobo plays as a slice of life look at these three people until the best sequence of the production when our understanding is turned on its head. Lit only by cigarette lighters as each character speaks in turn it sends us down a rabbit hole that makes us reconsider everything we have seen to that point. Director Ian Wilkes otherwise makes good use of multiple entry points as characters come and go, the only constant being Tank.

Live musical accompaniment is provided by Taylor on electric guitar. While this added mood and a guitar does feature as a prop of some emotional significance to Tank, it felt incongruous seeing Taylor in dual roles in such an intimate space.  

This is the second incarnation of Hobo at The Blue Room Theatre and after tonight’s final performance heads over east. Written by James Taylor, directed by Ian Wilkes, and starring Maitland Schnaars, James Hagan, and Taylor, it shines an uncompromising light on issues that tragically remain far too common.

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