Billie Collins

It’s not very intellectual to write a theatre review about crying. It’s just that Billie Collins, in her newest masterpiece ‘Bastard’, doesn’t make us cry like we usually do.

When we watch a play and cry, we’re not (most of the time) crying because we have a shared experience with the character on stage. Normally we cry because of some abstract connection with the scene, or because the thought of being sad reminds us of what upsets us in our own lives. When you watch ‘Bastard’, you’ll cry about the awfulness of the experience of sadness, and the failure of human expression in the face of such experience. Essentially, Collins nails grief.

"It would be wrong to simply term this play a ‘one man show’"

What I admire most about Collins’ writing is her ability to capture the everyday in all its quirkiness and theatricality, even within a play which is very much not about the everyday. The power of her style is in her similes which present every element of the world, every interaction and experience, in terms of what we knew so well as children. Her method is simplification, and yet with this comes glorious precision.

Collins’s almost novelesque style merges character monologue with the sharp immediacy of dramatic interactions, as Charlie (Stanley Thomas) is pulled in two conflicting directions throughout the play. On the one hand he wants to tell his story, giving what feels like a speech as much to himself as to a roomful of people, speaking as a way of coming to terms with what has happened. On the other, the moments are passing within these scenes, the other characters are waiting with bated breath for his responses: this is much more complex than pure character exposition.

And yet, of course, there are no other characters in the scenes. Stanley Thomas is alone on stage for the whole 90 minutes. He speaks mostly as himself, but sometimes he speaks the lines of his mother and father, or his half-sister or his newly-appeared biological father. This should be ridiculous – if you’d pitched it to me, I would have said this can only come out as farce. But Thomas captures perfectly the storyteller role that Collins proposes, aware of the fragility but also the egotism of the lone actor’s position. He is caught between the world of the story he tells, and the world of audience and storyteller that exists now in hindsight.

It is in the details that Thomas’s acting is most impressive, however. His mannerisms are so carefully thought-out and rigorously maintained from beginning to end (he rubs the back of his neck, he pulls down his t-shirt), transforming him into the uncertain young man who suddenly finds that everyone around him has been lying for much longer and in much more depth than he ever imagined possible. He has been unsteadied; he is still in the process of thinking. It’s one thing to play a magnificent king in a Shakespeare play, and quite another to play a pretty ordinary student whose not-knowing and not-being-able-to-cry isn’t anything more than ordinary human failure. It’s not romantic or angry, and Thomas deserves infinite praise for this subtlety.


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Just as it would be wrong to simply term this play a ‘one man show’, it’s wrong to describe the staging in terms of any kind of minimalism. It’s true that the Corpus Playroom stage is pretty much untouched, except for one chair and long pieces of white paper covering the walls from floor to ceiling. But this isn’t an aesthetic, and I think this is one of my favourite things about the play. The lighting changes only minutely, with the occasional shift to orange or blue or brighter white; the total number of sound effects in the whole play is a single figure. Collins isn’t making a point with this – she just chooses light which fits with place and time of the scene. The paper on the walls becomes a kind of drawing board for Charlie, a place to express himself visually as he draws on his route from the station to his house, and then the outline of his father, Stephen, and then (tracing around his own body) the outline of his biological father, Mark. The drawing can be symbolic, but it can also just be a way of better getting his point across and a way of helping his audience understand the story he is telling. What makes this play, written in what I have called an almost novelesque style,nota novel, then, is that Charlie’s thinking becomes an act of thinking through this drawing, a physical action which illustrates and makes sense of the thoughts and feelings that pile one upon the other in Charlie’s mind.

‘Bastard’ is a play which makes you want to write your own play, because you want to say these things that you have always felt and never put into words. Except Collins has already put them into words, and watching this play is an experience that I cannot recommend more highly. It’s not sensationalist, it’s not even tragic – it’s cathartic.

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