Gruesome Playground Injuries, Gate Theatre, London

The title baldly announces both the dramatic content and the perversely playful initial mood of Rajiv Joseph’s play. We see Kayleen and Doug on their first meeting, waiting to see the nurse of their American Catholic grade-school: she has stomach trouble, he a badly grazed face after riding his bicycle off the school roof while pretending to be Evel Knievel. (It sets the era as well.) The several subsequent scenes jump back and forth through their lives, but the keynotes of the two characters remain constant.

Doug is basically too dumb not to keep doing dumb stuff that injures him (he disproves the old cliché: even after he loses an eye to a firework, it’s still fun and games to him), while Kayleen’s mutilations are (give or take a phase with a razor-blade) mental: depression, anorexia, generally abyssal self-esteem. The two are never a couple, never in love, but seem to be soul mates of a kind; they are bound together by a sense of mutual refuge, returning again and again even after years apart at a time.

Mariah Gale and Felix Scott work well together, even in the onstage costume changes that occupy at least 10 of the 80 minutes of Justin Audibert’s production: they undress and re-dress while preserving the mood that ended the previous scene and modulating through to that which begins the next. Performing in the irregular white envelope that slashes diagonally across the Gate’s small space in Lily Arnold’s design, Gale and Scott give a sympathetic portrayal of a couple of misfits who are never particularly ground down by the world at large, nor take up arms against it. We assume that all they really have in their lives is each other because that is all we are shown. (Scott even genuinely fractured his hand at the performance I saw – that’s real commitment.)

And that is more or less as far as it goes. Joseph is not interested in broadening his picture, which is fine, but nor does he deepen it. Scenes have a tendency to end on unsubtly thumping lines, and the final scene thumps pat-a-pat, as if the writer feels he should take this idea somewhere but cannot manage it. This is Joseph’s first British exposure, and so far it promises neither triumph nor disaster. Watch this space.

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