The Royal Exchange, Manchester 10 March 2017 to 11 March 2017
Impotent male rage is an unlikely subject for a night at the theatre. But then Growing Pains, an autobiographical spoken word musical performed in blank verse/rap with songs in the styles of, respectively, Kate Tempest and Mike Skinner, is hardly a typical play.
Teenager Tom (author and sole performer Tom Gill) lives in a box room with his physically abusive father and his mother worn down by years of her husband’s outbursts. Tom likes to think outside the box and hopes for an acting career but is terrified to discover that he too is prone to unprovoked outbursts of anger.
The subject matter of the play may be dark but the style of presentation is expansive and enthusiastic. Gill was born in Salford so The Royal Exchange is very much a homecoming gig and he responds to the fervor of the audience to the extent that he occasionally breaks the fourth wall and has to scold himself for failing to maintain a consistent accent.
The rapping style of speech works really well as it fits so neatly into the artistic but down to earth personality that Gill portrays on stage. The use of guitar, rather than mechanical beats, to accompany the songs brings a gentle melancholy mood to underscore the violence that bubbles below the surface.
From his youth Gill aspired to be an actor and the play subtly illustrates how youngsters adopt different roles to suit their circumstances whether coping with bullies or blagging their way into the local pub. There is a strange innocence to the play initially apparent in Gill’s refusal to judge those whose aspirations go no further than the pub and later in his baffled realisation that he shares the inner rage of his despised father.
The story is told in poetic blank verse but director Matthew Landers avoids any sense of Growing Pains becoming a dry monologue with a strikingly dramatic presentation. Gill strides around the stage in his teenage persona full of breathless passion and barely able to conceal his excitement at the possibilities that lie ahead of him. Gill’s descent into rage is delivered as a nightmarish Jekyll and Hyde transformation complete with horror show lighting. The anger of Gill’s father on the other hand is dismissed as the pointless tantrum of a child.
With such a mixture of styles Growing Pains could easily become a dog’s dinner but Gill’s passion and the power of the presentation ensures that it develops into an intoxicating and uplifting experience
Reviewer: David Cunningham