Review: Dirty Crusty (Yard Theatre)

Pulitzer Prize nominee Clare Barron’s play runs this autumn

Abiona Omonua and Akiya Henry in Dirty Crusty
Abiona Omonua and Akiya Henry in Dirty Crusty
© Maurizio Martorana

Following the success of her Pulitzer Prize-nominated Dance Nation, Clare Barron's new play Dirty Crusty premieres at the Yard Theatre. Much like its predecessor, Dirty Crusty includes plenty of dancing, but instead of competitive tweens we meet 31 year-old Jeanine learning ballet for the first time from instructor Synda. Alongside her dance hobby, Jeanine is entering into a new relationship with casual hook-up/boyfriend Victor. These two areas become Jeanine's focus, as she attempts to forget about the literal mess she lives in.

The two strands of Jeanine's life melt into each other – sex into dance, and dance into sex. One moment on her knees and the next learning to correct her posture. It's all about the body. Rajiv Pattani's lighting design mimics this, taking us from morning to night in seconds and repeating to last a week. Jay Miller's production has borrowed a few devices from his previous show The Crucible, with characters talking to each other through microphones and stage directions being read aloud. These devices are used excellently so it's a shame when the stage is empty and silent, disrupting the continuous waves of Jeanine's life. The text itself almost begs for more action.

Darcy Wallace's choreography is a beautiful addition, with Jeanine and Synda's rehearsal bringing out the joy in learning to dance. As they twirl and jump, they narrate their actions ("we are hunting, we are hunting") and it is genuinely hilarious. This scene could have carried on for half an hour more and the audience wouldn't have minded. Abiona Omonua's Synda is a tough but graceful instructor, with mesmerising monologue delivery and spot-on straight-faced comic timing.

The entire show appears hinged on the idea of concealment. Disapproving voices are heard without bodies – Emma Bailey's slick set hides three small rooms with blue curtains, which open and close as if controlled by a puppet master. There's a mountain of mess behind one, racks of masks behind another. Even the ballet Synda teaches Jeanine is about an evil prince in disguise. Jeanine's sadness bubbles up from within, forcing its way out. Some darker moments happen without warning. A few seconds later they are concealed with the swish of a blue curtain; on with the show.

Barron's writing style creates truly unpredictable characters, as they flicker from larger statements ("we are the women of the future") to kooky one-liners. It's a welcome surprise to hear the routes their conversations take, from making bees sad to reactions about sexual fantasies. The first 15 minutes alone contains a collage of genres, including a random yet brilliant song. Conversely this unpredictability makes the show feel disjointed, with part three in particular losing its momentum, mainly due to the lack of Akiya Henry's Jeanine, who is a ball of energy when onstage.

Dirty Crusty is a strange, quirky play which flips between laughs and stunned silences, but there's something about it that needs a little more action to tip it over the edge and really make it punch.