Temperatures soar in more ways than one in Joseph Skelton’s Fat Jewels, a dark and deeply unsettling tale of abuse, manipulation and mental fragility. An already warm theatre becomes increasingly stifling as tensions between the two characters rise, and all the audience can do is sit and wait for the inevitable explosion.
21-year-old Pat (Hugh Train) is a loner who lives with his mum, has no friends and is troubled by violent fantasies. Convinced there’s something wrong with him, he seizes on family friend Danny’s (Robert Walters) vague offer of “therapy”, which seems to mostly involve encouraging him to let out his pent-up aggression by killing animals. But Danny has his own agenda, and takes advantage of Pat’s vulnerability to embark on a programme of emotional and sexual manipulation, all the while convincing him it’s for his own good – and in doing so, like most bullies, reveals his own deep insecurities.
We’re thrown straight into the midst of their bizarre encounter in Danny’s living room on a South Yorkshire council estate, where the heater is turned up to the max and several discarded beer cans hint at a long evening already behind us. Any hopes that this might be a normal friendship go quickly out the window as the older man suggests a trip to the zoo with a cricket bat; while Pat seems clueless as to his true meaning, Danny is visibly excited by the idea of beating a sea lion to death. And it only gets more disturbing from there, as we get into sleeping bag “worm fights”, chicken phobias and a nail-biting final confrontation during which the balance of power shifts dizzyingly back and forth.
As surreal as the plot occasionally gets, it’s sold with absolute conviction by the performances of actors Hugh Train and Robert Walters. As the naive, affable Pat, Train appears every inch the victim; it’s hard to imagine him having violent dreams, let alone acting on them – unless someone insults his mum, that is. Walters’ Danny seems by far the more volatile and dangerous of the two as he uses every unsavoury (and at times downright creepy) method at his disposal to get under Pat’s skin. But as director Luke Davies slowly ramps up the tension, cracks begin to show for both men, and while we can’t feel sympathy for Danny in the same way we do for Pat, by the time he finally crumbles we have some understanding of the insecurity and past trauma that drives him to abuse what little power he has.
Despite some darkly humorous moments, Fat Jewels is not always an easy play to watch; in fact there are points where it’s tempting (and on one occasion necessary, for those sitting front and centre) to physically recoil. The Hope’s tight quarters and rising temperatures work with Skelton’s narrative to create a sense of claustrophobia, so that instead of being a distracting inconvenience, the discomfort becomes a vital part of the audience experience – and when combined with an intriguing plot and two utterly absorbing performances on stage, there’s more than enough in this disturbing production to keep us gripped throughout.
Fat Jewels is at The Hope Theatre until 21st July.
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