Meet Len, a middle aged man-child stuck in a world where “gaytard,” “bender” and “spastic” are legitimate, harmless insults. He throws these lovingly at his niece Jen to cheer her up as she struggles to deal with her father’s suicide. As you’d imagine, he’s hardly a suitable counsellor and his humour strikes a dull note with the 19 year-old but this odd pairing become a rather charming duo as they struggle through the stages of grief together with a couple of cans of cider.
Stuart Slade’s play handles grief with a wry smile and a knowing nod to its vast complexity. Peppering his 80-minute piece with silly jokes and nostalgia he gets his characters through a particularly tough family loss. Jen’s father – Len’s brother – was a radio personality, a much-loved celebrity with a knighthood and a thirty-year career under his belt. But in the last year of his life ten people including former colleagues, fans and work experience students claim he sexually abused them decades ago, when they were young and vulnerable. With his reputation in pieces, Jen’s father kills himself leaving his child to face the public prejudice.
From the moment we meet her sitting glumly in her basement, Jen’s mind is spinning wildly with unanswered questions of justice and humanity. She wonders if one bad year out of fifty means she can call her dad’s existence mostly good and not have to deal with his murkier deeds. She poses that since the person he was when he committed those crimes, existed so long ago perhaps some kind of statute of limitations should be put in place. She questions whether he’s really guilty and becomes increasingly desperate for an answer. The precise intensity required for this role is captured effortlessly by Jennifer Clement. Jen’s world is clouded and dark and Clement opens up her mind for us in frustrated sporadic bursts.
Graham O’Mara plays the sweary lout Len and magically gets us to empathise with his character’s impropriety. As he and his niece sift through old clothing, Len’s outbursts take their conversation to some awkward, uncomfortable places but under Dan Pick’s smart direction O’Mara somehow makes this endearing. Georgia de Grey’s set adds to what a solid production this is. She’s created a garage steeped in ’80s records and framed discs giving us clues to the nameless character only ever referred to as Jen’s dad.
Some elements of the play are overwritten, as when Jen talks about living her life through bubble wrap while holding a wad of bubble wrap. The humour can also be a bit excessive and the swearing and the stream of incessant offensive insults quickly becomes tiring but that’s part of the point. The ways we deal with death can be inexplicably odd sometimes. It’s only worsened when there are huge moral questions hanging over our memories. Parallels to recent headlines are clear but more than Zeitgeist, it is grief with all its peculiarities and complications that is so excellently captured in Cans.
Cans runs at Theatre 503 until 29th November
Image by Tani Van Amse