Review: Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre

The complexities of male friendship go under the magnifying glass – literally – in Renaissance Men, a new show written by James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The play made its debut this week with a two-date first sharing, which proved more than enough to whet the appetite for a planned tour in 2019.

A riotous comedy with an unexpectedly dark twist, the play centres around three friends – Irvine (Sam Heron), Quentin (Alexander Knott) and Winston (James Demaine) – who think they’ve discovered a priceless original painting in a charity shop in Streatham. Excited by the prospect of striking it rich, the three call in slightly shady local art dealer Mr Sutcliffe (Jack Gogarty) to confirm the painting’s authenticity – but his visit ends up bringing answers of a very different kind when a shocking secret is revealed.

Photo credit: Zöe Grain

You might be tempted to assume, given their artistic background and love of a good philosophical debate (the company have deliberately steered away from the stereotypical image of the millennial generation), that these three friends would be more than capable of expressing how they feel about things. You might think that – but you’d be wrong. Behind the laugh-a-minute banter and quick-fire insults that characterise their friendship, and which are delivered with delightful authenticity by the cast, there are a whole heap of deep and unspoken emotions. This is particularly true for Sam Heron’s painfully vulnerable Irvine, whose recent interest in writing erotic poetry increasingly seems to be an attempt to get something very serious off his chest – if only his mates weren’t too distracted by their own dramas to pay attention.

It might be early days for the play, but Ryan Hutton’s production is already highly polished. All four characters are expertly drawn and totally convincing both in writing and performance; the four actors work very naturally together, and even in the play’s relatively short running time of 70 minutes, there’s a complexity and detail to each character that leaves us wanting to know more. Dysfunctional and eccentric they may be, but a few moments of genuine affection do manage to slip through the barriers the characters have constructed around themselves, making it obvious their problem isn’t that they don’t care about each other, but that they just don’t know how to say so.

The pace of the drama also feels just right, with the very funny first half of the play carefully laying clues to what’s coming, so that while it comes as a surprise, on reflection what happens next actually makes perfect sense. And there’s a growing suspense – heightened by the fact that we never get to see the painting ourselves – as we wait to find out if the three friends really are on to a winner.

Photo credit: Zöe Grain

Topical, original and very funny, Renaissance Men is off to a great start, with two sell-out performances already under its belt and no doubt many more to come. What begins as a simple story about three friends who like to wind each other up is quickly revealed to have hidden depths, and touches on some important issues – but while the play certainly enters some pretty dark territory, it never fails to be great entertainment. This is a really promising new production; let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next chance to see it.

Renaissance Men was performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November. For details of future shows, visit bagofbeard.co.uk or follow @BagOfBeard.

Interview: Alexander Knott, Renaissance Men

A bleak and bitter comedy about toxic masculinity and the millennial generation, Renaissance Men is a new production from writer James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The show will debut at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November, with tour dates to be announced for 2019.

“On the face of it Renaissance Men is about three art school dropouts who discover a lost masterpiece in a charity shop in Streatham,” explains Bag of Beard co-director, Alexander Knott. “But beyond that concept, the play is about what happens when men don’t talk to each other. When masculinity gets in the way of human connection. What happens if three young people are faced with a life changing opportunity? Does huge wealth generate huge contentment? What is the relevance of art in a society that values only capital? Is there a voice for Millennials that aren’t just obsessed with their phones? Is there a voice for nostalgia? And through this, can we connect to each other on a fundamental level?”

The story was inspired in part by the personal experience of writer James Patrick, combined with the company’s interest in discussing how the millennial generation connect with each other – or fail to do so. “We weren’t interested in the clichéd image of millennials; we’re not telling a story of iPhones and Instagram, but a kind of counter culture, as James puts it,” says Alexander, who plays Quentin in the show. “With our productions, Bag of Beard are interested in a sense of the timeless, of a heightened reality, but one that we can see society reflected in.

“We explored this in our first production Bath, at The Bread and Roses Theatre, but it was almost an unintentional discovery. With Renaissance Men we wanted to intentionally look at the idea of nostalgia, along with a discussion about toxic masculinity and how friendships can disintegrate. Without giving any plot away, we also examine the oppressive nature of depression, and how so often men fail to communicate what they’re feeling, which luckily is coming more to the forefront of awareness.”

The play has been about a year in the making, and had evolved significantly during the development process: “James started developing an idea of a couple of criminals who stole a priceless painting during a burglary, and then had to deal with the repercussions of this when they discovered how valuable it was. Fairly soon into the writing process, the characters evolved to be art students, and the piece became semi-autobiographical. Through a process of devising and improvisation, followed by scripting the dialogue and shaping it into a narrative, we had the framework of the narrative we have now.

“We went from what we thought was a dark comedy, into a story that has a resonance about our generation, we hope. It’s a satire in parts, we’re not advocating the lifestyle that these characters live, but we think it has a truth in it. During the rehearsal process, we’ve worked a lot with music – the original music for the show was composed by Sam Heron, who also plays Irvine, and elements of physical theatre, to create the semi-heightened world of the piece.”

Alexander is co-director of Bag of Beard along with Ryan Hutton, who also directs Renaissance Men. “The company was formed when, sat in a rehearsal room in South London, working on a classical play, we started discussing how we would do it differently,” he explains. “The ideas we threw around were stylised, surreal, almost grotesque versions of these classical characters – pulling at any threads of naturalism and distorting them into an abstract shape. It was from this discussion that the idea behind the company came together. We’ve yet to make our abstract version of that particular Jacobean tragedy, but ever since we’ve been creating theatre that is darkly comic, uses elements of physical theatre and poetry, and offers a comment on our generation, and how we engage with the world, with original words and original music.”

Renaissance Men will be performed in a special sharing on 25th and 26th November, at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. “The Old Red Lion has an incredible reputation for being a hub of great new writing, and such an amazing launchpad of new work, writers and companies,” says Alexander. “We saw Kenneth Emson’s Plastic earlier in the year, and the poetic storytelling really made it electrifying. A fascinating working class story, brought into an almost heightened reality by the use of language. That’s something we strive for with Bag of Beard, and the Old Red Lion’s track record of supporting really ambitious new theatre speaks volumes.”

Following these initial performances in London, the company are hoping to embark on a regional tour next year. “We have good relationships with some really exciting theatres in the north of England, so it’d be great to see what the reaction is up there. It’s always good to try and share the work with as many audiences as possible – one of the cornerstones of Bag of Beard is an idea of a national ensemble, as half our company is London based and the other half hailing from Yorkshire, so that’s the aim, is to share the show up there.

“We hope that the audience will leave with questions, stimulated minds and a sense of unease when considering where the characters will go next. This play evokes a sense of a generation devoid of a cause and one which tries to fill that hole with so much; politics, memes, nostalgia etc. We hope the question of how the generation can hope to survive in the real world is raised. But conversely, we hope they have a bloody good laugh!”

Book now for Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November.