Shine a light

14 April 2017

Thick Skin should make us take a long look at ourselves, says Lily James


Thick Skin’s gaze is hawkish. Its script avoids easy exposition. Pete’s exposure is anticipated via a series of micro-aggressions: "Have you always thought of London as your home." Harvey Comerford is adept at winding grease and wide-eyed-ness together. His eyes go dark and glittering whenever challenged. It’s a good portrait of power and self-pity at work . He’s being oh-so-reasonable, but every open palm is really a clenched fist.

Hannah Azuonye draws Naomi with deft, light strokes. It’s characterisation through revelation. The audience starts in the same position as Pete, not knowing her, intrigued by her. Azuonye lets you work it all out, her performance naturalistic and spare. She conveys the sense that Naomi isn’t enigmatic like Sia, or "beguiling". She’s just being asked all the wrong questions.

Kwami Odoom as Oli is a watchable, warm performer with a smart use of volume to control his audience. Or, he speaks quietly, and I like it. The riff on tapas and ageing is well-handled: in stand-up terms it’s old ground but trod well and with good timing. It’s fun, being lulled into this false sense of security.

It suddenly makes sense, all this old material: the Magaluf anecdote, the broken foot, the insistence on relatability. Because Oli’s worried you don’t find him very relatable at all. It’s a shame that the staging means that when this exposition comes, Odoom spends a lot of it spinning on the spot to address everyone.

There are issues with the traverse staging: there are a couple of moments when it disjoints the audience reactions – we get a look at Kwami Odoom lip-syncing to Sia, then the other side gets a look. I don’t think you can do gags in tandem. 

Caitlin McEwan has a rough deal.  How does the character of Jess make sense in the world? How has her stand-up career survived? Her friendships? Should we treat her as a character, or a dramatic provocation instead?

During her routine, the lighting is inspired. Everyone is looked at. I desperately wanted some imagined audience onstage – it’s well-timed when Comerford and Azuonye stand up and form a mediating space. It puts me out of my misery. I’m troubled pinpointing what kind of misery it was: I don’t know if I felt challenged by the content, or just repulsed.  

It’s a shame that she gets redeemed via a new routine. The message that she was hateful and vicious and now is turning that vicious-ness against herself is pat.

"Vicious" suggests anarchy, whereas racist is the opposite: a manifestation of all that is entrenched. I don’t know if Poor Michelle is making a point, that we can label ourselves as more or less anything except racist: check Pete calling Jess "insensitive". Or, are they are actually suggesting that stopping doing jokes about Asian men represents growth for the character.

Above, I’m guilty of treating Jess like a real person. If she’s a provocation, it’s a good job she gets a second stand-up routine, to test if we can as an audience still like her, and laugh at her, in the context of what she’s done in the play. Amazingly (or un-amazingly) she gets a lot of laughs.

It’s rattled me. It’s shone a light on me. And as excruciating as that is, it’s useful. Oli’s got a friend called Jonty who never gets called out. And if you don’t know a Jonty, maybe you are one.


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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato