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Manhood review – a touching tale about life, love and pet ownership

Written by Will Challis

On Thursday 28th July, Aurora Arts Theatre Company previewed Manhood in Studio 1 at Workshop Theatre before taking it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The play, written and directed by former LUU Theatre Group President Dec Kelly, follows the story of Ben (Ryan Duval) and how he interacts with family, friends, love interests and his dog, Otto, as an endearingly awkward sixteen-year-old schoolboy with an absent, incarcerated father.

All photo creds to Abby Swain

There is a lot to commend the company for. Their most notable strength is the portrayal of familial relationships. Duval and Niamh Walter, who plays Ben’s fiery younger sister Bella, share great on-stage chemistry and brilliantly portray the at once frustrated yet loving relationship between siblings. The two actors obviously seem comfortable with one another which makes them a convincing pair of on-stage siblings, even if they do for some reason adopt different regional accents. Tallulah Roberts as Ben’s devoted but flawed mother is a believable, well-observed performance, mimicking mannerisms and speaking in ways that audience members will no doubt recognise in their own mothers. Roberts and Duval portray a relationship that is strong but at times strained, and Kelly explores the nuances of family life and how the absence of a positive male role model might affect an adolescent boy.

Friendships are pure and gentle. Kelly sets out to remedy the lack of media depicting men and young boys communicating emotion, and does so well through his portrayal of the teasing yet always tender companionship between Ben and cheeky-chap Tyler (Oran Cosimini). Tyler’s school tie, deliberately sloppy with its grotesquely large knot and wide but short tie beneath, shows a shrewd eye for detail in his characterisation. However, towards the end Tyler came across as a little too morally perfect, being possibly the result of a very intentional decision to do a complete 180 on the typically negative stereotype of the class clown. Although some lines between Ben and Tyler seem to come straight out of a PSHE educational video, it is refreshing to see a genuine honouring of a male friendship that is true and beautiful rather than one that is built on bullying and toxicity. And Ben’s friendship with classmate Freya (Jenny Wilkinson) is a charming representation of the innocence of teenage romance. Undefined by gender norms, neither of them hypermasculine or hyperfeminine, the two are a good-natured and relatable couple that bring back fond memories to the audience.

Marketed as a story about a boy and his dog, it is disappointing to see that Otto spends most of his time hiding backstage with his tail between his legs. When the two share their few moments on stage, Ben gingerly plays with Otto in an awkward whisper which seems unusual for the chirpy and joyful character that Duval has developed so remarkably. Otto is a stuffed toy converted into a puppet that moves and behaves surprisingly like a real dog. Movement director Shauna McSwiney has done a tremendous job at analysing and simulating the behaviour of real dogs through puppetry that is extremely reminiscent of that in War Horse. It’s highly ambitious and a great gimmick, but when the initial novelty of the puppet wears off, it raises the question as to why it is a character in the first place. For future performances, Duval needs to work on his and Otto’s relationship (if you can call it that). More importantly, Otto needs to make a bigger impact on the narrative as a whole. Instead of lengthy monologues delivered to the audience, Ben could soliloquise to Otto so that he has enough time on stage to become a fully established member of the ensemble.

Nevertheless, Manhood has astounding production value that can be attributed to first time producer Mia Franey. As a play, Manhood is daring, confident and honest, and can be caught at the Argyll Theatre at theSpace on North Bridge on 5th-13th August 2022.

Tickets available here

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