Put simply, this play represents exactly the kind of vitality we should be encouraging from the Oxford drama scene.
I can’t help but look back, to judge this performance from the moment of stepping into the space, where I was greeted with a relaxed, natural atmosphere that would stand both play and audience in good stead for the hour that followed. The Pilch was transformed into what can only be described as a mixture of the kind of ‘fort’ you may have constructed as a child by tying bedsheets together, and something inherently darker, with debris – tissues, pizza boxes, lube – littering the area surrounding a surprisingly white double bed.
The couple in the bed, Adam (Adham Smart) and Jay (Selali Fiamanya) did not take what would have been the easy way out: they did not pretend to be asleep in a vaguely convincing but not wholly comfortable proximity. Instead they chatted, laughing and stroking each other, adjusting their positions and achieving an impressive level of intimacy. While sat waiting for the piece to start, a fellow audience member recognised his friend sat across from me, and thought nothing of shouting across the space and stepping over the couple to embrace him. This, I thought, was testament to the foundations Smart and Fiamanya laid, which would later be rocked by some subject matter that was incredibly difficult-to-swallow.
Indeed, the opening scene took the intimacy up a level again, with a sex scene that was expertly controlled by breath, and the tensing of Fiamanya’s foot, curled back over the mattress. Intuitive understanding of pace was visible throughout, and at no point did either half of the couple falter, or break the connection between one another. The trust we saw on stage marked both Smart and Fiamanya as strong and competent actors.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this play is that it is new writing. Not for one moment did I consider this while watching. Frey Kwa Hawking moves naturally through an impressive amount of subject matter: Romeo and Juliet, the ‘empathy switch’, and one half of a relationship that asks to be hurt in order to be ‘snapped out of’ crippling depression.
The greatest difficulties facing director Jack Doyle must have been how to chart the passing of time, and signal different times of day in a setting that is intentionally fixed: Smart’s character does not leave his boyfriend’s bed for eight months. Doyle uses blackouts and extended freezes to chart this change, something I remained ambivalent about; there is only so much a black out can conceal in such an intimate space. Similarly, though some of the light seemed intended to represent a certain time, in general, this could have been made clearer.
Overall, Death Grip is the kind of play that gets me excited, and I left the studio with a head full of ideas and the feeling – as Smart, Fiamanya and Kwa Hawking have proved – that there is the kind of talent around to create something new. Even the blackouts could be developed into symbols of Smart’s search for treatment, for, as he says, ‘just one good sleep’.