Review: Monster at The Vaults

Joe Sellman-Leava seems the least likely person to appear in a show about anger and violence. Affable, chatty and funny, he keeps telling us throughout his hour-long solo show Monster that he’s “not that guy”, and because we like him, we believe him – but should we?

Photo credit: Ben Borley

In essence, the show is made up of two stories; in one, Joe’s increasingly fraught relationship with his girlfriend, and in the other Joe learning his lines for a role as a violent husband. Unable to connect to the character, he embarks on some intense internet research into the lives of Patrick Stewart, whose father was abusive, and Mike Tyson, for whom violence – in and out of the ring – was simply a way of life. Both men are voiced by Sellman-Leava, who switches rapidly between the two very different personas in an impressive display of imitation and versatility.

The two threads seem at first quite separate, but ultimately collide in a dramatic climax that may or may not have really happened (we’re told up front that some of the show’s content is true, and some isn’t). It’s not just about that one scene, though; the show is full of little moments that have the potential to explode – a male director’s condescending attitude towards Joe’s female co-star, for instance, or Joe’s own memories of childhood violence, which he insists don’t count because nobody actually got hurt.

The point of all this is to demonstrate that whether we like it or not, every one of us has the potential for violence. Anger is a natural human response, but it’s how we choose to act on that emotion that decides whether or not we become “that guy”. At a time when men’s treatment of women is very much under the microscope, it’s refreshing to hear a male voice that’s not just offering platitudes but actually stepping up and admitting his own (possible) contribution to the problem.

Photo credit: Ben Borley

As in Worklight Theatre’s previous show, Labels, which explores his own personal experience of racism, Monster demonstrates Joe Sellman-Leava’s ability to boldly tackle difficult and controversial issues with passion and honesty. The fast-moving performance, directed by Yaz Al-Shaater, uses few props and consequently relies almost solely on Sellman-Leava’s personality and considerable talent for bringing multiple different characters to life. The show has a complex structure, flitting back and forth between Joe’s room, the rehearsal room, the online interviews and excerpts from some of Shakespeare’s more troubling texts, yet somehow he keeps us with him every step of the way, guiding us slowly but surely towards the show’s thought-provoking message.

Monster has been in development since it began life as a short piece in 2009. Since then it’s been rewritten and reworked multiple times, and now comes to the stage at what feels like exactly the right time, as uncomfortable but essential viewing.

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