Mismatched pairings make terrific comedy fodder: just look at Katherine and Petruchio in Shakespeare, or Morecambe and Wise, or Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, or The Producers‘ Bialystock and Bloom. Few pairs are as poles apart, on paper at least, as brash driving instructor Max (“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never had a student not pass first time”) and gentle, witty young trans man Tyler, who form the entire cast of Will Jackson’s enjoyable but slight new play.
Set mostly inside a Vauxhall Corsa on the streets of Birmingham as Tyler learns to drive, Clutch gets a lot of comic mileage (pun intended) out of putting these wildly different men together, especially at first. It starts as strongly and hilariously as any new comedy I can remember: there’s real delight in observing the contrast between Geoffrey Aymer’s blustering, loquacious Max, a pontificating, bullish force of nature with no apparent volume control, and Charlie Kafflyn (in a striking theatrical debut) who makes something funny and individual out of Tyler’s exasperation and quiet strength. Most refreshingly, the subject of Tyler being trans is referred to but never turned into a hot button topic.
The actors work beautifully together and are so engaging that it’s almost possible to overlook the fact that the script’s episodic structure (some scenes last barely two minutes) suggest it might be better suited to the screen than the stage, and that Jackson’s humour is perhaps over reliant on the fatigued comic trope of setting up phone conversations which we can only hear half of (in this case, mouthy but lovable Max and his ongoing marital discord).
Much of the play is laugh-out-loud funny, but gets serious when the men get into a yelling match mid-lesson when Tyler turns up with a stinking hangover, resulting in a nasty car accident. The aftermath of this is dealt with in a somewhat perfunctory fashion however, as are the truths about Max’s struggling driving school and messy private life, and Tyler’s abortive attempt to make a new life for himself in London. There just isn’t enough theatrical meat here to make these plot points truly interesting or relatable, despite the excellence of the two actors.
Having created such vivid central characters, it’s just a shame that Jackson doesn’t do a bit more with them. Philip J Morris’s nicely paced production runs at less than a full hour and while brevity can be an underrated virtue in the theatre, here’s a show that would actually benefit from being considerably longer. Aymer and Kafflyn’s Max and Tyler are so good and so specific that another 30 minutes or so in their company would be a real pleasure but, as it stands, they aren’t given the tools to make these people and their circumstances really hit home.
The Bush’s studio is self-described as a laboratory for new writing, which would suggest that Clutch is still a work-in-progress. I hope that’s the case and that what at the moment is a warm-hearted vignette develops into a satisfying, fully realised comedy-drama. Tyler and Max are worth it. I also hope these marvellous actors will still be available to take them to the next stage.