'Men in the Cities' review or 'A cold embrace.'

Men in The Cities, Chris Goode
Royal Court Theatre, 22nd July 2015

All too often, you can feel alone at the theatre. But Chris Goode’s ‘Men in the Cities’ – which is a lonely play about a lot of lonely men, told by a lonely playwright – is an incredible collective experience. This is a show that slowly sucks you into its world and the criss-crossing emotions contained within it. By the end, the audience is responding as one. And we are in pain and in shock, together.

The show begins with a delicate and haunting image of the night outside all these men’s city lives. Two foxes are fucking in the street and, although that cry sounds like a death rattle, it is also the sound of two creatures coming together. And, although that sound only pushes at the edges of these men’s night-time experiences, it somehow affects their days too. This is a play about love and pain, loneliness and belonging and the grey area – life – where these conflicting sensations meet.

Chris Goode stands at the centre of a dimly lit stage, with a crowd of fans stacked up behind him (such a smart but restrained design from Naomi Dawson). They look like a frozen chorus or, perhaps, a drum kit. Goode barely acknowledges their existence. Instead, he stands at a microphone and, as he subtly and trippingly introduces the characters that will make up his play, a little light show flares up above him. Initially, the spotlights jump about and change colour in accordance with each character. Eventually, as these men’s lives begin to brush up against each other, the lighting opens out and floods the space. All those little dots of illumination begin to merge.

We begin at dawn and, then, a flurry of morning alarm clocks. It feels like a reluctant start to the day for every character, and one suffused with the pain of the night and days before it. We meet a young man, Ben, and his lover. Although they wake in a loving embrace, a gentle horror laps around the edges of their tale. We meet young Rufus. It’s his birthday and his father has bought him a bike but Rufus is more interested in the two men fucking on the video on his phone. We see a lonely retired chap in a room that is barely touched by his presence and another man whose only companion seems to be a worn-out stuffed doll. And here is another chap who works at a newsagent and who, at one point, will photocopy a page full of nothing. Each of these people will see the same headline today: the story about the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, carried out in the name of a war that is impossible to name or locate.  

Countless other characters flare up and disappear. It begins to feel like a huge fire is blazing through director Wendy Hubbard’s painful production and that the ashes from that fire are quietly scattering over Chris, his characters and his audience. Underneath this ash is our playwright. Goode performs in such a way that his presence never disappears entirely. A hint of a smile plays at the corner of his lips or the edges of his eyes. He loses himself in these stories but he is always there, the storyteller, hovering just outside of them. That smile of Goode’s consoles and frightens us. He is control. He is in control and all the other characters are merely a figment of his nimble, fickle imagination.

The vague dread that dances underneath all these stories grows stronger. Young Rufus’ secret desires spill over at school and they take on cruel and violent overtones. Ben’s boyfriend leaves and Ben’s depression solidifies and grows stronger, wrapping him in a darkness that no one will be able to penetrate. We spy an old man’s crossword. It initially looks like a harmless image but the crossword is filled with a blast of angry, lusting, vicious words. That doll which might bring comfort in some other play or story seems – on this night – to be connected to some terrible, horrific, splintering event. And the gruesome headlines continue to build and build.

The structure of this piece – which provides little snippets of insight that build and build towards something whole – creates an overwhelmingly sensual experience. The emotions from each story, and our reactions to these emotions, grow too big to be contained by the script’s framework. The seams of the writing begin to burst under the pressure and the ugly, shocking and sad emotions from one scene tumble over into the next. The characters might not have yet physically joined up in Goode’s exquisitely structured work but the emotions held and shared by these characters are beginning to take on a life of their own. And those emotions form a dogged and dark little life force that no one, not Goode or the audience, can control.

These waves of darkness begin to sweep through the play and the audience. At certain devastating moments, these emotions meet, crash and explode. At one point, Goode rips open his script and recalls a lonely night that he once experienced, during the process of writing his play. We see Goode seek solace from a friend who can never love him and, as we listen to and imagine this bruising embrace, Goode whispers all sorts of horrors in our ears. He talks of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the lonely days leading up to his suicide; of that missing Malaysian airlines flight and of Woody Allen, carefully caressing his daughter’s stomach. All these little story strands come together and they are love inverted, hope turned inside out or loneliness pushed to dark and terminal limits.

That sounds horrible and bleak and, to be honest, great swathes of this show are deeply unsettling. But there is humour in here too – little flickers of knowingness, irony and hope. And there is always Goode above or beneath it all, gently pulling at the strings. Near the end, the characters grow closer and their lives begin to intersect in more meaningful and palpable ways. But this merging of lives never brings the comfort we might hope for. In fact, at almost every turn, a coming together holds just for a second until private grief, resentment or fear jolts the two characters apart once again. It is at this point that those fans, sitting behind Goode, finally flicker into life. The air is pushed through the audience and touches all of us. It is cold and it is fleeting – but it had to come from somewhere, right? 

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