The Talleyrand | How to Beat Up Your Dad | October 16th, 2019

What did you get up to last night? My evening started with a band that resembled the twisted lovechildren of Flight of the Conchords and recent Arctic Monkeys, and ended with a barely clothed man standing over his bleeding father on the floor of the backroom in a pub in Manchester (it was a play, people. Don’t panic). In between there were flaccid penises, cans of Carling, weddings that banned virgins, and various accounts of ‘hand stuff’ and people pissing on each other. Does that sound like a good night to you? Well you know what, it was bloody brilliant.

There were a few reasons for that. Firstly, while The Talleyrand might not exactly be new, it feels that way to me. After leaving Manchester for two years and then coming back to a house in Levenshulme that’s just five minutes from my old haunt, I was particularly excited to discover that what looks like a typical hipster pub from the outside was actually also a new gig and theatre venue. During the show last night one of the actors described the backroom they were performing in as ‘a hallway somewhere in Manchester.’ It’s a fitting description. But that, for me, makes it an absolutely perfect setting for a show such as this one. Theatre is often at its best when not in a theatre.

Second on my list of reasons for why this was such an enjoyable night are Mambo. The Flight of the Conchords and Arctic Monkeys lovechildren mentioned above were actually much more than that, bringing more noise and excitement to the stage than a two-piece band normally would on a Wednesday. They were fun, amusing, insightful, and even had a tune about their love of boxer dogs. Usually when a play tacks on a live music act at the start of the evening, I assume we’re going to get something underwhelming and unnecessary. Not last night. I was extremely glad that the cabin fever caused by four days at home with a chest infection persuaded me to leave the house early and check them out.

Thirdly, and most importantly, was the main act. How to Beat Up Your Dad is the debut production from Caravan Guys, a new theatre company which hails from the North East. As a two man show it stars young actors Theo Mason Wood and Albert Haddenham and sells itself as a ‘tale of one young man’s journey through manhood’ and a ‘dark comedy about masculinity.’ It is definitely both those things, but if you were just to read those two quotes on the poster you wouldn’t be prepared for anything like the levels of originality that were on show. How many plays start with one of the stars drumming and shouting about having a ‘bitch in a box’, right before the other star jumps out of a box naked (save for a tiny hat) and tells the other star how much he hates this as an opening? One, I would guess. And that one would be How to Beat Up Your Dad.

As a scene setter, it was pretty much perfection. It summed up the humour we were going to witness over the next fifty minutes or so, but also gave more than a little hint at the dark underbelly of male relationships that would be so subtly explored. Wood began the play as the meek and timid character, dominated by the more typically masculine persona demonstrated by Haddenham. But it was the moment around the middle of the play when these two seemed to switch which really highlighted what How to Beat Up Your Dad was trying to say. Its message seems to be that young men, taught not to cry and to be strong and to have sex with as many women as they can, can only take so much. All of society’s pressure will see them crack eventually. That a play which makes a joke about ‘mum bias’ last for almost five minutes (you have to see it to understand) can also make such a powerful and important statement is extremely impressive.

Just as a collection of comedic set pieces, this play would be enough for an enjoyable evening. It’s mix of music, spoken word, traditional theatre, and storytelling is mesmerising and fast paced and both of the actors put on a superb performance. But what makes this show so special, without ruining it for future audiences, are the subdued hints throughout and the cathartic and emotional final few minutes. It ends with a joke – of course it does – but that’s kind of the point. The whole show is a cogent exploration of the humour and hubris that young men use to mask the messes that they really are.

There was a lovely moment at the play’s conclusion, as Wood and Haddenham went back to being themselves and stepped out of their characters. Both barely clothed and with their arms around each other, Wood thanked the audience and asked them to follow the company on social media and give them a like or a share if they’d enjoyed the show. He said something along the lines of, ‘we need all the support we can get as we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing.’ He seemed to mean it. If he did, then that makes it an even more special moment. Because they’d just unwittingly spent the last fifty minutes proving that they really do know what they’re doing, and that they’re bloody good at it as well.

by Fran Slater

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