mon 15/07/2024

Grud, Hampstead Theatre review - sparky investigation of a geeky friendship | reviews, news & interviews

Grud, Hampstead Theatre review - sparky investigation of a geeky friendship

Grud, Hampstead Theatre review - sparky investigation of a geeky friendship

Two awkward science nerds and a violent alcoholic father are oddly likeable company

Lost in space: Catherine Ashdown and Kadiesha Belgrave as Bo and Aicha, with Kerbal, centreImages - Alex Brenner

Sarah Power, the writer of Grud, now in the Hampstead’s smaller space, is a self-confessed geek who excelled at science at school. She also had an alcoholic parent, and both autobiographical strands have turned up trumps in this, the second of her plays to be produced professionally. 

"Grud", we eventually learn, is the nickname Bo’s father (Karl Theobald, pictured below with Ashdown) has given his monster-self, a creature we see a lot of in the opening scenes. Bo (Catherine Ashdown), in the childlike play-world Grud has invented, where animals come to visit, is usually known as Squelch. Her mother presumably fled this menagerie, and Grud’s drink problem, at an early age, leaving Bo alone to adapt her personality to her father’s addiction.

This she has done at the expense of any social ease. Her defences are near-permanently up; from behind them she snipes at fellow students, especially her primary school bête noire, Georgia. So when she stumbles into Space Club at the start of her A-level year, she is like a wounded animal, prickly and on edge. Space Club is the preserve of Aicha (Kadiesha Belgrave), Bo's exact opposite: Black, outgoing, vivacious, wildly imaginative. The burden of the play is to mesh these two people into a viable friendship, if it can be done.

To this end, Noemi Daboczi’s set is created as a continuous plane, but with a slope between its two levels. In the first half, school desks are at the lower level, Bo’s sad, messy home on the upper one. As the play proceeds, the two swap places and increasingly seem to be umbilically joined. When Grud knocks over a beer can, its contents drip down to the girls at college, on the lower level. And at times Bo speaks directly to Aicha across the two levels, as if this were physically possible. It’s a neat way to suggest Bo’s growing reluctance to compartmentalise her experiences and emotions.

Catherine Ashdown and Karl Theobald in GrudThe plot sounds like the makings of a gritty domestic drama, but Grud feels more like a coming-of-age comedy, the interaction of the two girls, in particular, producing belly laughs. Aicha is a natural clown (and probably a budding film-maker), who has created an introductory video about space, to attract new members, which she projects over the back wall, with Also Sprach Zarathustra as its score. Alas, Bo is her only taker, and she had only shown up thinking she was going to find a “Physics Extended Project”. Instead, she finds a fellow geek and her pet project, Kerbal: a working model of a potential space instrument, shaped like a cube. 

If Aicha has the trappings to sell the project, Bo – an A* student – actually has the knowhow to make Kerbal work. Her sozzled father is clearly a man of some intellectual power too, but his mind is sinking into the mire of his addiction, and his job is at risk. He and Bo have a rapport that is at times tender and playful (their earwig game is a delight), at others cruelly combative, usually when she returns from school to find him in a stupor, surrounded by debris. One evening he triumphantly announces he has bought dinner; she warns him she will know if he is lying as soon as she opens the fridge. What’s in there is typical of their frazzled relationship: part true, part mendacious, but ultimately with a funny side.

As Bo and Aicha’s college project continues, their friendship keeps hitting the speed bumps of Bo’s reflexive hostility. To her credit, Aicha keeps probing these defences for a way in. Despite being smart and gregarious, she is a loner who tries too hard to be likeable and badly needs a geek friend. The denouement is both heartwarming and authentic, organic and character-led and not palpably a contrivance of the writer’s. You leave smiling. 

But along the way the misery of alcoholism is never in doubt, for sufferer and carers alike. It’s to Karl Theobald’s credit that he transforms Grud into a believable, almost sympathetic man, whose love for his daughter is never entirely eclipsed by his drunken rages. Set aside any preconceptions of what you expect Theobald to be like in this role: this is not the engagingly funny, elfin sidekick of Green Wing and Twentytwelve fame, but a man with a vicious beast inside that brings him so low, you fear he will never get up again. 

The two actresses complement him in their authenticity. Belgrave is a clownish presence with a machine-gun delivery and a gift for hilarious eye-rolling and deadpanning; Ashdown (making her professional debut), a clipped, contained little person with, you sense, a fire within. Can she avoid following her father down a lonely, miserable path, and will Aicha be the guiding light she needs? Power answers those questions with the wisdom of one who has been there herself, aided by the assured and sensitive direction of Jaz Woodcock-Stewart, who keeps this concoction from imploding. An oddly refreshing evening.

Bo's defences are near-permanently up; from behind them she snipes at fellow students


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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