Rikki Beadle-Blair’s Gutted at Theatre Royal, Stratford East doesn’t do things by halves. Covering (spoiler alert) sexual abuse, child abuse, incest, transphobia, violence, faith, parenting and identity, it feels as if everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown into the writing. Thankfully this doesn’t detract from a play that is bursting with disturbing and poignant questions, whilst coaxing an audience through one-liners and tear-inducing comedy. Gutted transcends the box-ticking of your conventional play, and whilst it may feel that Beadle-Blair covers a multitude of issues, at its core is a family struggling to move away from a troubled past.
The Prospect family are not to be messed with: of Irish descent, the four brothers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are known on the estate for their hardened attitudes. Headed by Bridie – Mother Prospect – this family may appear relentless in their strength, but cracks begin to expose their darker secrets. They’re a family held together through the bonds of love, but they’ve been repeatedly torn, twisted and pushed to their limits. Gutted explores the Prospect brothers as they struggle to understand and come to terms with their identities. Matthew (James Farrar) is tipped to be the next big footballer, but his disturbing upbringing haunts him, whilst his youngest brother John (Gavin McCluskey) finds solace in the Islamic faith. The middle brothers Mark (Frankie Fitzgerald) and Luke (Jamie Nichols) explore their past in the relationships they seek: Mark with his violent and troubled wife, and Luke with his desire to be a husband to a transexual woman.
Whilst sprawling with subplots, Gutted questions the roots of the brothers’ troubled upbringings. Was it Bridie’s (Louise Jameson) silence over her husband’s interfering with her sons, or perhaps it was their fate to struggle in life? Whilst Beadle-Blair doesn’t give a decisive conclusion, a clear message is heard: we’re products of our upbringings, but we do have the option of change, if we’re strong enough. For a play that covers so much ground, it is surprisingly easy and enjoyable to watch. Beadle-Blair’s writing is razor sharp and hilarious in equal measures. We’re propelled from side-splitting jokes, to gasps at the chilling language and actions of the characters, particularly around the subject of child abuse and incest. This juxtaposition of action does make for an unsettling ride, but this is what makes Gutted so enjoyable; you can never second-guess the characters’ emotional and physical depth.
The cast are particularly adept under the direction of Beadle-Blair, with dialogue sprawling across scenes that switch and change in both location and time frame. It’s hard to pinpoint a weakness within the ensemble: they are finely cast and ease the transition between key themes and subplots to perfection. Farrar’s central character of Matthew provides particularly strong grounding for the cast, whilst McCluskey’s questioning of faith and acceptance is charming. As for Jameson’s Bridie, it is only during the closing scenes of Gutted that we witness her haunting monologue that sends shivers down your spine; she reveals her all-seeing eye, her damaged motherhood and her fragile parenting skills.
If criticism is to be made it has to fall on the lack of finesse from Beadle-Blair, who, it seems, has taken on too much as a creative force within Gutted . With credits as the playwright, director, set, costume and sound designer, something has to give under so much responsibility. For me, this falls to the stage design: three mirrored walls with screens across the back wall make for a kaleidoscope of mirrored images and reflective surfaces that glitter and sparkle. Perhaps a nod towards the need to look at reflections to understand our own workings in life, the design doesn’t aid the piece but rather becomes a distraction. There’s also a need for Gutted to be shortened in playing time: some ten minutes could be shaved from some scenes, but perhaps across the run this will take effect naturally.
What Gutted as a play proves is how much further theatre has to explore within taboo subjects. Audible gasps were heard from the audience at Stratford East during some scenes, and if I’m being honest, some of the material is disturbing even for an unshockable person like myself. Beadle-Blair clashes themes together with such painfully acute precision that we are left deaf from the collisions. Gutted does have faults: it is too lengthy with a slightly spiralling narrative, but these can be overlooked for a cast that throws everything onto the stage with devastating accuracy. Gutted is disturbing, but instead of leaving its audience pummelled into submission, Beadle-Blair writes with hilarious candour that shows that we’re all disturbed and troubled individuals – but there is hope for us all, as cheesy as that may sound.
Gutted is playing at Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 25 May. For more information and tickets, see the Stratford East website. Photography by Jane Hobson.