Review: Grotty (Bunker Theatre)

A painfully funny look at the underbelly of lesbian life from writer and performer Izzy Tennyson

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Anita-Joy UwaJeh in Grotty
Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Anita-Joy UwaJeh in Grotty
© The Other Richard

Izzy Tennyson who both writes and stars in this grimly funny, painfully honest look at the underbelly of lesbian life in the capital includes stand-up comedy and poetry in her skill set, and it shows. Eye-wateringly explicit at times, the writing has a terse beauty and brutal humour that shocks, amuses and ultimately proves unexpectedly affecting. It also sounds extraordinarily accurate, and is acted flawlessly in Hannah Hauer-King's intense, stylish production.

Tennyson plays geeky, gawky, nervy, 20-something Rigby, never fully comfortable in her own skin, taunted and treated like a commodity by older, wealthier women. It's a remarkable portrait of a restless, troubled soul looking to make a connection but caught up in trivial fripperies like how many Twitter followers a potential partner has, or how nice their flat is. She is also infinitely more intelligent, manipulative even, than the other women give her credit for. Her face goes from almost grotesque animation to dead-eyed stare in the blink of an eye: she is simultaneously lovable and unnerving. The extended riffs where Rigby directly addresses the audience are raw and funny, although I wish Tennyson would slow down just a tad as a couple of comic gems get lost in the manic delivery. Nonetheless it is an astonishing, occasionally wince-making performance.

Apart from a moving turn by Clare Gollop as Rigby's sickly, uncomprehending mother, all the other actresses play dual roles, and they are all superb. Rebecca Hinds is hilarious as über-confident media boss Toad, cheerfully conceding that she would probably have bullied Rigby if they'd been at school together, and is just as much fun as cute Kate, a touchingly solicitous straight mate who can't understand why Rigby can't just find a "normal" woman.

"Normal" is probably the last word most people would use to describe the alarming, messed-up Witch ("I never bottom" she says before going on to recite a mind-boggling litany of sexual kinks and perversions that she IS into) who Rigby has an extended dalliance with. Grace Chilton plays her with a riveting coolness and detachment that cracks open just once, in a devastating anecdote that goes some way to explaining her behaviour. Chilton brilliantly transforms into affectionate, drug-fogged bi-sexual Elliot, the only character to show any warmth to our dislocated heroine. Anita Joy-Uwajeh is laugh-out-loud funny as a frenemy whose take-down analysis of the different kinds of gay women who operate on the scene provoked gasps of horrified recognition from the crowd I saw the play with.

Anna Reid's neat all-black set is starkly and effectively lit by Zoe Spurr and there is an edgy soundscore by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. This unremittingly bleak, cynical depiction of urban lesbian life would be pretty unbearable without the leavening of humour, and there is plenty of that, even if much of it is squirm-inducing. One of the club nights Rigby attends is charmingly named the Clam Jam; "can you imagine being straight and going to a night called the Cock And Hole?" she wryly observes. There is also a bracing inventiveness to the play's construction that constantly holds the attention.

It is refreshing to see a show where the entire creative and production team is female, but when the writing, acting and production are this good, this truly is theatre for everybody, except perhaps those who are easily shocked. For all the laughter and the final optimistic note, the lasting impression left by gritty Grotty is of a haunting portrait of lonely, damaged people uncertain how to reach out. It's very impressive.