In the time it takes me to throw my coat over my shoulders, walk the short distance from The Yard Theatre to the train station, ride the train and boil the kettle back in my flat, I still am not able to decide how I feel about Clare Barron’s Dirty Crusty.
On one hand, it is a bleak reflection of flawed characters having human experiences. On the other hand it is dreamlike and disorientating. Characters suddenly begin to sing, time leaps forward in indeterminate intervals, and atmospheric music and coloured lights place events just out of grasp of reality.
At the start of the show the set is totally bare save for a small house with a single illuminated window. It is roughly the size of a doll’s house and so when we meet our protagonist Jeanine (Akiya Henry) we immediately sense that she is the doll. At 31, Jeanine lives in squalor and struggles to make sense of a world in which she has not found her place. On a whim she plunges headlong into a casual relationship with old acquaintance and mask maker (for some reason) Victor (Dougie McMeekin) with whom she has increasingly violent yet emotionally unfulfilling sex.
At the same time she is also inexplicably drawn to Synda (Abiona Omonua) a dancer who begins to teach Jeanine ballet thereby helping her to find the physically freedom and emotional fulfilment that she has been missing. As these duelling forces tangle and clash in Jeanine’s life, we watch her sifting through the wreckage in a fruitless search for herself and a connection with another person that feels honest and real.
Rajiv Pattani’s light design beautifully lulls us from day into night as we aimlessly drift through time alongside Jeanine. She has a playful personality, vulnerability and seems to crave a greater purpose. It is a familiar predicament that many young women find themselves grappling with and I find myself longing to extend a hand to her in solidarity.
Darcy Wallace’s choreography blends seamlessly from sex into dance blurring the lines between the precise and intimate discipline of ballet and the intoxicating abandon of sex. McMeekin skillfully portrays the possessive, insecure and awkward Victor whilst Omonua expertly evokes the liberation of dance and a life free from other people’s expectations. She has excellent comic timing with a particular highlight of the show being the scene in which her and Janine are rehearsing for an upcoming recital.
Humour and misery have an unnerving relationship in this play, however, as we are ripped from one and plunged into the other unexpectedly. What at first seems to be a fumbling, warts-and-all coming of age story is turned completely on its head in the play’s emotional climax. There is nothing at all prior to suggest the dark twist so when it comes, the audience are left floundering. It feels like an opportunity wasted with three such complex characters with so much potential that is never fully realised. All other action that comes after seems to happen from a distance as we struggle to reconcile our expectations with this unsettling revelation.
At the end of the show, there’s a ballet performance with actual young children dressed as woodland creatures and electro dance music and I almost throw up my hands and say ‘at this point, why not?’
To summarise, Dirty Crusty is a surprising show. We delve into darker human impulses, are united by our shared desire for fulfilment but ultimately mourn what could have been if the characters were allowed to fully shine without the constraints of the plot holding them back.
Dirty Crusty is playing at The Yard Theatre until 30 November. For more information and tickets, visit The Yard Theatre website.