Review: Mouthpiece, Soho Theatre

It’s a question that playwrights and theatre-makers everywhere are constantly considering (and if not, they should be): do I have the right to tell this story?

First shown in 2018 at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh and written by Glasgow-based, award-winning writer Kieran Hurley, Mouthpiece tackles this question through the portrayal of an unlikely friendship gone wrong. Declan (Lorn Macdonald), a talented young artist struggling with a volatile home life, crosses paths with Libby (Neve McIntosh), a writer who hasn’t put pen to page in years. When he pulls her back from the edge of disaster, they begin to form an uneasy alliance.

Their budding relationship is complicated by class and cultural differences borne of two very different experiences of Edinburgh. Libby sees an opportunity to get her career back on track and return to what she always believed – that art and stories can change the world. And she wants Declan’s story in all of its painful, messy detail.

Hurley’s play is masterfully constructed and written from the heart, offering complex, deeply written characters. As spectators, we find ourselves rooting for them in different ways, despite both exhibiting some deeply unsympathetic behaviour. The text is punctuated by moments in which Libby breaks the fourth wall to explain the “rules” of playwriting to the audience. These moments are cleverly placed and often create a sense of bitter irony in the action that is unfolding.

A kind of narrator-baton is passed between the two characters to share personal moments with the audience. We learn of Declan’s abusive home life and the tender relationship he shares with his 5-year-old sister. Projection (design by Kai Fischer) is used wonderfully to highlight these intimate moments, showing the words of the sister whose voice is never heard.  

Macdonald and Mcintosh share a natural on-stage chemistry which is truly gripping from start to finish. Despite the inevitable disintegration of their friendship, there is welcome humour and lightness in their interactions and the differences between their worldviews. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is subtle and tuned in to the nuances of Hurley’s words, deftly bringing out the politics of the piece.

Libby’s ethical dubiousness and exploitative behaviour is difficult to watch. In a particularly poignant moment, a rock-bottom Declan enters the audience and we are forced to consider our own position on this topic: when does poverty portrayal become poverty porn? What does “voicing the voiceless” really mean?

This play unapologetically delves into questions of class and appropriation which feel more pertinent now than ever before. It says that representation matters. Mouthpiece is political theatre for our time.

Mouthpiece is playing the Soho Theatre until 4 May. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.