I suppose that if you were to meet any given person in the middle of ‘one of the worst days of their life’, you may not come away with the best possible first impression. They might be half-drunk, rambling bitterly, and desperate to tell you just how it all went wrong. Such is the sorry case of Mitch Howell, the collaborator and performer of Secondhand Stories.
In this hour-long monologue (leavened by a healthy dose of audience participation), Howell plays a dramatised version himself, created with and for him by writer and director Christopher Walthorne. The piece certainly feels like a joint effort between the two, with Walthorne himself occasionally piping up from the tech desk to offer rebuke or encouragement. I can’t help but think how strange it must be to have someone else write and direct your own life story. But then this is the point – to explore why and how we tell our stories, to experiment with the authorship and ownership of a narrative, and to dance around the lines between fact and fiction.
Howell is a commanding presence as he paces the stage; swigging real whisky from a mug, offering up his life story and soliciting others to spill their own in return for baked goods. There are one or two moments when this exchange feels a bit awkward and overly-pressurised, but nonetheless Howell and Walthorne have together created a piece that exemplifies the human need to tell other people about our suffering – made all the more raw by the truth of Howell’s story. Without revealing too much here, Howell admits that though the more trivial elements of the tale are fictionalised, the darker incidences are (mostly) true. But this mixture is made all the murkier by an ambiguity between where Mitch the character ends and Mitch the actor begins – even in writing this review I’m not entirely sure which of them I’m referring to. Whilst interesting, this uncertainty undermines the pathos we are supposed to feel, as we’re never sure how much is actually true, and it’s equally difficult to read just how much input Walthorne has had on the piece. The prevailing effect is one of confusion – an interesting jumble, rather than a finely wrought blend of truth and fiction.
My other major qualm with Secondhand Stories is that the piece (I’m not sure that it can be called a play) is all a bit high-octane for my taste. Howell’s unrelenting intensity of delivery and sheer force of personality leave little space for the audience’s stories to breathe. Dramaturgically, the shape of the piece and the script would have benefitted from more moments of levity to provide some respite and variation from Howell’s pervading mania. Much of the existing humour is dark and acerbic rather than providing comic relief from the suffering and frustration that dominate the piece. You come away feeling you’ve been vented to for an hour – which in all honesty I found quite exhausting.
There is a kernel of a good idea here; namely the organic exchange of our personal stories, facilitated by a confessional performer. If pared back substantially, it might have made for a more comfortable environment, fostering more forthcoming audience participation. As it stands, it’s not really my cup of tea – or whisky for that matter.
Secondhand Stories is playing at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 25 August. For more information and tickets, click here.