Cans (Theatre503)

In this unflinching new play, a star’s spectacular fall from grace leaves a bitter legacy for his family

Fallen heroes of the entertainment industry are still big news, and in Stuart Slade‘s new drama, a hugely successful TV host is driven to suicide by the prospect of going on trial for historic sex offences.

He’s already dead when the action begins, and Cans is a two-hander that tells the story of the people left behind after a family disaster like this. Jennifer Clement gives a powerful performance as the daughter Jen, communicating the anguish and anger of a young woman whose loyalty and trust are brutally tested. She’s sick of the whispers, dirty jokes and lewd propositions that have become her lot since her dad hit the headlines – and persists in believing he was a victim, not a criminal. With her mother prostrated by grief, for support and strength she can only turn to her childhood hero, uncle Len.

Poor girl.

Shambolic, foul-mouthed boozer Len has used his brother’s money and success as a lifetime’s excuse to achieve nothing on his own merits. Played with compelling conviction by Graham O’Mara, he takes pleasure in drowning mice, drives better when drunk and tells the same tired stories about willies over and over again.

Director Dan Pick creates a credible, occasionally touching relationship between this unlikely pair as they share cans of cider in the garage – a cleverly chaotic design by Georgia de Grey – and fondly recall the dead man’s achievements.

But there’s also an uneasy undercurrent of how differently Len may be viewing his niece at 19, to how he did when she was a child.

Late changes to the script also suggest this is a darker area the writing was moving closer towards. Sorting through the dead man’s clothes, a stained jumper is rejected for Oxfam for looking as though it’s been dipped in ‘pig diarhhoea’, but in the performed version the stain is now likened to menstrual blood by Len, who also manages to work incest, shaved pubic hair and boyfriends into their conversations.

Cans is strong meat, with a lot of swearing, misogyny and uncomfortable references to ‘spastics’ and Parkinson’s. But while it’s a challenging drama, it lacks subtlety at key points
– not least the convenient plot device of a stash of diaries giving Jen her first glimpse of the truth. And Len’s analysis of his brother’s crimes being caused by a ‘hard little ball of
dark’ in his heart feels thin.

Ultimately Cans leaves unanswered questions about this hammer-wielding man’s own potential for darkness. And if she hasn’t yet made any decisions about her future, Jen might want to take a tip.

Stay away from Uncle Len.