What is love? This age-old question has been asked by everyone from Shakespeare to Haddaway, and in Hot Mess, Ella Hickson adds her voice to the debate. To each of her characters, love means something different: for Twitch (Katrina Allen), it means becoming indelible, leaving a mark on the other person to ensure she can never be forgotten. To her twin brother Polo (Timothy Renouf), it’s a concept so alien he can’t even say the word. For their friend Jacks (Natalia Titcomb), it’s a brief moment of physical connection – the briefer the better. And for American tourist Billy (Gareth Balai), it may prove to be a lot more than he bargained for…
Like an old married couple who’ve told their “how we met” story so many times it’s become a choreographed performance, Twitch and Polo open proceedings by explaining how they came into the world: Polo first – clean, quiet and pale – followed by Twitch – messy and loud, her appearance a surprise that nobody counted on. Then it gets a little weird, as we learn they had only one heart between them, which was bestowed on Twitch. As a result, she loves often and devotedly, while Polo (so named because he has a hole where his heart should be) can’t bring himself to feel anything for anyone.
The events of the story take place over one night, as the twins celebrate their 25th birthday on a raucous night out, and simultaneous encounters allow a direct, poetic exploration of the two girls’ contrasting attitudes to sex. At the same time, Polo outlines his sister’s unfortunate history with boys, who have a habit of meeting nasty accidents when they don’t reciprocate her feelings. Her brother shares this information casually, almost with amusement (much as he talks about almost everything else) – yet his concern when Twitch falls hard and fast for Billy seems genuine, if only because he knows long before the rest of us what the end result might be.
Originally staged in a nightclub, the play moves to a more traditional setting under the direction of Vernal Theatre’s Julian Bruton and Kieran Rogers. The cast – much like the play – is one of two halves, though all four are equally impressive. As Polo and Jacks, Timothy Renouf and Natalia Titcomb are loud, brash and very funny; above all they want to be seen and admired, and will do literally anything to achieve that attention. In contrast, Katrina Allen and Gareth Balai (who plays all Twitch’s unfortunate former boyfriends as well as Billy) are sweetly likeable, each with their own kind of innocence about what lies ahead. Ultimately, you get the feeling Polo isn’t the only one lacking something fundamental – but he might just be the only one who’s aware of what’s missing.
Like the twins’ birthday celebration, Hot Mess is something of an emotional rollercoaster, and concludes with a striking final image that’s not easy to shake off. The play asks some deep questions, and certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of answers – but getting to the bottom of it all is an enjoyable challenge.
Hot Mess is at the Lion and Unicorn until 26th August.