Mouthpiece, the new double act at the Soho Theatre, smartly interrogates the nature of the theatre industry, asking us whether it is right to squash disadvantaged people’s stories into templates for consumption by the theatre-going upper-middle class. The play is a brilliant examination of the intercultural friendship between Libby, a failing forty-something playwright, and Declan, a rough-mouthed teenager from a deprived city housing estate. The two characters meet atop the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, as Declan stops Libby from taking her own life, and subsequently, we follow their peculiarly blossoming friendship. However, while the pair learn from each other and joke around in moments which are often laugh-out-loud funny, we constantly feel unsettled by their cultural misunderstandings which threaten the trust they build in each other.
Declan is presented as a frustrated artist, despite his initial rough edges. Actor Lorn McDonald dominates with youthful angst on stage, which is set in three minimalist tiers to represent his ‘private’ spot on the Crags, where he draws cityscapes of Edinburgh. He has an equally soft side, revealed in his anecdotes about looking after his five-year-old sister told under warm lighting. Libby is also frustrated in her middle-class life; she lectures us in a fierce rant about how playwrights nowadays must be ‘marketable and edgy’, even though she believes that her plays will not change anyone’s life and so questions the point of writing at all. The two characters gravitate towards each other, resulting in Declan agreeing for Libby to write a play about him, entitled Mouthpiece, while he at the same time works on an art project of the same name.
This is where problems ensue in the relationship. Set design helps to maintain this sense of unease, since the main stage is set inside a frame tilted slightly away from the audience. This reminds us that we are watching the life story of Declan play out through what looks like a television, leading into a final climax when Declan comes into the audience to watch the play that Libby has made of his life. A particularly disturbing moment is when Declan asks us if we have all ‘learned a very important lesson and we’re all pleased with ourselves’, after we have observed the misfortunes he has had to put up with. Crucially, the play is aware of its meta-nature here, as it becomes a parody of itself in a sudden sickening twist.
I have never watched a play which asks what it means to write an ending for someone’s story, when they have yet to live it, but writer Kieran Hurley manages to delve into this issue with humanity and honesty. Both characters are superbly developed and bounce off one another, except there is always a divide existing between their classes. Often, Declan’s intense monologues about his tough home life will be accompanied by Libby sitting in the background, calmly typing his story on a laptop as the words appear in a projection behind him, thus merging the story and the play already.
This is gritty theatre, laced with electric performances, which really makes us think twice about how we reveal untold stories of those less fortunate, set against the backdrop of Edinburgh where poverty exists next door to privilege.
Mouthpiece is at the Soho theatre until 4th May. Tickets can be purchased here.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor