Check your privilege

14 April 2017

Phoebe Graham struggles to connect with Thick Skin

It’s lucky this play is called Thick Skin with such a razor-sharp script.

Its premise is simple, albeit a bit typical. Four millennials. Four stories. All gently connected. But this isn’t a play about connection. This is about the failure to successfully maintain those connections. It’s about trying to use the right words but unconsciously using the wrong ones.

A boy stands and introduces himself into a microphone. And you think, hang on? Is this the sequel to Hidden? Alas not, this is Pete. Pete is a white, middle class boy who went to public (not boarding) school and is completely aware of his privilege and he begins to drone on with this irritating superior inferiority when thankfully Oli speaks over him about his travels to Magaluf.

Pete then meets a singer, Naomi, and develops a relationship with her from the desire to feature her in a documentary. And then there’s his friend Jess who is struggling with her self-perception as well as her stand-up persona. Oli continues to do a lot of general but insightful observation.

Tension builds as Pete’s vision for Naomi is restricted to the prism of her mixed race, Jess gets slammed for making racist jokes as a means of asserting a persona and Oli gets frustrated with always being visually taken to be something he’s not after a chance encounter with Jess on the bus. Everyone means well, but how can we express that intention articulately, wisely and sensitively, especially concerning the language of race?

There’s an endless spark to the writing that could be listened to all day. A lot is said with little effort. It’s like a thousand thoughts of the days laced into a narrative arc. But this means that dramatic moments sometimes feel forced for the sake of ramping up the tension. The old-hand friendship between Pete and Jess and its subsequent breakdown isn’t wholly convincing. Naomi’s pinnacle confrontation with Pete shouts volumes but doesn’t quite land in the way it should. This moment, nonetheless, evokes a very poignant discussion about the difference between racial exploration and appropriation.

The performances are natural and believable, especially that of the writer herself, Caitlin McEwan, who forces an entire audience into cringing discomfort through the overtly racist stand-up set but wins them back over when she unites her honest personality with her comic performance. Her writing is effervescent, observant and incredibly self-aware.

In fact, the script is so very smart that I sometimes wish there weren’t any bodies at all to distract from it, just voices. I want to concentrate on the crucial comments and the questions and the pertinent provocations but often find myself distracted in the emptiness of the traverse staging. There’s a lot to take in and, especially within a knackered haze on the last day of NSDF, it’s easy to find yourself a little lost.