Review: Hot Mess at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

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.

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Interview: Julian Bruton, HOT MESS

HOT MESS is a coming-of-age story about love, sex, connection and relationships,” says Julian Bruton, co-director of Vernal Theatre Company. “The play is about twins, Polo and Twitch, who have returned to their hometown to celebrate their 25th birthday. Inherently one twin can love, the other cannot. The story unfolds on their big night out, as the twins and their friends come to terms with their dichotomy.”

The play was written by Ella Hickson, whose¬†other work includes¬†Oil and Eight, and was first performed in 2010¬†at the Hawke & Hunter Below Stairs Nightclub as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.¬†“I think what makes Ella Hickson’s work special is how it explores and challenges themes and subject matters that are relevant to audiences today. Her latest play, Oil at the Almeida, is a brilliant example of that,” says Julian.

“I was attracted to HOT MESS by its unique form. When it comes to plays, I admire plays that are unique, adventurous and different in their form. Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court is a good recent example. An integral part of the form of HOT MESS was its direct storytelling to the audience; the lack of fourth wall. I was also drawn to this play because of its focus on younger characters and their experiences pertinent to them. I feel there are not a lot of plays that solely explore characters of that age range.”

In light of this, Julian thinks the play will particularly appeal to twenty-somethings and teenagers, but he hopes it’s also got something for other audience demographics: “I think people should come and see the show because it’s entertaining and funny, with a good dose of pathos and a thumping soundtrack. Another reason to see the show is because it’s very relatable. It’s a play about love. In an age of social media and phone apps such as Tinder and Grindr, exploring the challenges of finding love and connection couldn‚Äôt be more relevant.¬†I’d like audiences to have an entertaining experience and as part of that, to delve and ponder the play’s explorations of love, sex and coming-of-age.”

HOT MESS opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 22nd August as part of the Camden Fringe. “I’m looking forward to being part of the buzzy atmosphere of Camden and its equally exciting festival!” says Julian.

He’s just as excited about the play’s cast: “They’re a group of actors who are really active and in the thick of it. Timothy Renouf has recently finished filming the upcoming feature film, Game Over, with Mark Heap. Gareth Balai has only just finished appearing in The Taming of the Shrew at The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre with Lazarus Theatre Company. Katrina Allen recently performed in a new play, Baby Come Back, at the Leicester Square Theatre, and Natalia Titcomb graduated from the Guildford School of Acting this year.”

Vernal Theatre Company was founded earlier this year by Julian and co-director/producer Kieran Rogers. “The company started when Kieran and I met at the Director’s Club, as part of the Director’s Cut Theatre Company,” says Julian. “We also met and worked with Katrina and Timothy as they were members of the Actor’s Club with Director’s Cut.

“As a company, we have an aim of producing new writing in the future. We aim to produce theatre that is current, exciting, bold, entertaining and provocative.”

Book now for HOT MESS at the Lion and Unicorn from 22nd-26th August.