The Lowry, Salford
05 March 2016
Punching the Sky describes the agonised reaction of writer/performer Lizi Patch on being informed by her 11-year-old son that he was feeling traumatised after, at the prompting of a school friend, watching a hard-core pornographic film online.
As a pre-teen, under the impression that the title - something like ’Midnight Madness’ - implied a ghost train type fairground ride, I wandered into a tatty strip show. The fact that the memory remains vivid supports Patch’s assertion that early exposure to sexual images can be upsetting.
You’d think, therefore, that I’d approach Punching the Sky from a sympathetic viewpoint but this is not the case. Don’t really perceive childhood as a time of innocence, dislike children and find parents to be very dull company who use their status to claim peak holiday periods, avoid anti-social work shifts and make travelling on public transport hell.
Finding one of them occupying the moral high ground and dictating what constitutes appropriate on-line behaviour is irritating rather than appealing. It turns out, however, that a conflicted state of mind is the perfect one in which to approach the play as, instead of delivering a strident rant, Patch sets out to examine the complexity of the situation. One might wish that Patch’s opinions on appropriate action were more clearly articulated but she concentrates instead on describing the impact of the incident on her family and, by extension, wider society leaving the audience to reach their own conclusion.
Director Mark Hollander sets an anxious atmosphere that captures the hectic modern lifestyle overloaded by constant developments. A pair of actors peers through blinds and frequently interrupt Patch’s monologue with advice from parenting manuals or quotes from on-line and media responses to, and personal abuse generated by, the author’s efforts to draw attention to the situation. The only part of the play that feels a bit defensive is the repeated urging of the cast for Patch to come to the point.
The sensory overload that can arise from Internet over-use is imaginatively captured by James Taylor’s animation that sends a bewildering display of text and images shooting across the rear of the stage and threatening to swamp the cast
Although the mood is edgy the play is certainly not dour. Patch has a lively personality and her autobiographical recollections, while most likely to appeal to parents in the audience, are charming and entertaining. She cheerfully acknowledges that her efforts to be an ecologically-aware mother failed within a week and that she ended up more like Bridget Jones. She recalls how, pre-internet, Boots the Chemist provided moral guardianship for the country by questioning patrons who submitted photographs with a sexual content to be developed.
Rather than a straightforward plea for censorship Punching the Sky chillingly demonstrates the emotional consequences suffered by people who are caught up in a situation to which there is no easy resolution. One might have preferred less detail on the early years of motherhood, and a deeper examination of the aftermath of the event, but there is no denying that this is a high-quality and thought-provoking production.
Reviewer: David Cunningham