“Brush your hair, pluck your eyebrows and put on something pretty”, Rachel (Natasha Grace Hutt) says to Lucy (Katherine Thomas, also the writer), because, as a “nice surprise”, she has brought a man round to Lucy’s flat for her to date. The alarm bells ringing in my head are so loud I’m surprised they can’t be heard on stage. And this is only the beginning.
Scott Le Crass’s production of Never Trust a Man Bun might more aptly be named Never Trust a Play that Relies on One Stereotype for Its Title Because You Might Actually Get Four. There’s the awkward and naïve Gus (Calum Robshaw); his flatmate, the aggressively sarcastic and blunt Lucy, who retains most of the audience’s attention by occasionally threatening to develop a personality; Rachel, Gus’s on-off girlfriend whose main role is to be blonde, vacuous, irrational and desired by the two men in the play; and Caps (Jack Forsyth Noble) of the man-bun, with his aura of phoney complexity spread over entitlement and what I’d be tempted to call a manipulative streak if he made any attempt to disguise it.
The plot, which sees Lucy unwillingly dragged into a catastrophic double-date, unfolds in a series of increasingly strained and contrived scenes. Generally these involve a restatement of the caricatures, which remain unchanged and unchallenged throughout, with the four characters taking turns to speak into the emptiness at the heart of the performance as much as to each other. There is also the play’s attempt at comedy, which, despite everything, could salvage the production were it not so thoughtlessly jarring and astonishingly dependent on casual bigotry.
Even the funniest and most seemingly innocuous jokes, such as Rachel’s assertion that “the plural of mice is mice” only entrench the deeply harmful stereotypes on display. Yet these soon give way to such innovative witticisms as “that was retarded of me” – Lucy, after mocking Caps’s sister and then discovering she is autistic – and “pretty sure I’m gay after being set up with you”. This latter comment follows hot on the heels of Gus’s desperate need to defend his heterosexuality after Caps’s suggestion that he is queer because he is wearing an apron. I mean, if sporting an apron from TK Maxx isn’t a progressive definition of gay identity then I don’t know what is.
On top of the casual exploitation of ableism and homophobia in the interests of what might loosely be termed humour, the play manages to resuscitate a remarkable number of antiquated gendered assumptions. Enough has already been said about the portrayal of Rachel as a woman so mindless that, despite being an aspiring author, she selects a cookbook as her book club choice. Or rather, she uses her feminine wiles to persuade Gus to select it, who, incidentally, appears not to have noticed her (total lack of) personality.
Nonetheless, the two men compete to lavish Rachel with condescending compliments whilst bestowing upon Lucy such generous constructive criticism as “you’re not making yourself attractive” or the marginally less nuanced “you’re being a bitch”. Rachel is then interrogated for having once kissed six men in the same night. Finally, – spoiler alert! – in a dramatic twist not even the most experienced rom-com audience could expect, Caps kisses Rachel, despite her objections, after which she promptly decides to go home with him and, presumably, live happily ever after in patriarchal bliss.
All in all, it is ironically fitting that the line which best sums up Never Trust a Man Bun should come during one of Caps’s eloquent insights into Lucy’s character: simply put, it “has nothing nice, intelligent or funny to say”.
Never Trust a Man Bun is playing until 24 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Stockwell Playhouse website.