Happiness is a good play

GunplayGUNPLAY or HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN or THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF FIREARMS AND HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Bats Theatre
Written by: Paul Rothwell
Directed by: David Lawrence

Gunplay starts as it means to continue. The audience is greeted by the 16-strong cast, milling about the stage, not in character but greeting us in their natural accents and by name if they happen to know audience members. Right from the beginning, we are shown that the fourth wall is going to be broken any ol’ time the Bacchanals feel like it. There is no hush as the lights go down, the actors don’t disappear backstage in preparation for the show starting – they simply launch straight in, whether we’re buckled in or not. And it is quite a ride.

When we get time to take a breath and examine the set, we see an almost junkyard-like level of clutter around the edge of the stage. There are theatre seats, beer kegs, tallboys, impromptu ‘bars’ and, somewhat puzzlingly, an enormous Bacchanals poster and a large paper ‘set list’ of all the scenes of the play. I can only put this down to them once again keeping that fourth wall at bay, but it does smack a little of “Go Team Bacchanals” – weirdly apt, in the context of the cheerleading pastiche included in the show.

The narrator (adroitly played by Salesi Le’ota) introduces us to a small American town full of exactly what you’d expect to find. There are cheerleaders and star sportsmen, former beauty queens (even an American Idol contestant still living her dream), lawmen, cocktail waitresses, fervent liberals and, of course, gun enthusiasts. I couldn’t find a credited costumier, which leads me to think that the cast organised their own costumes. This was a job well done – the Stars and Stripes were strongly in evidence and yokel chic abounded.

The introduction of the township of Fairview is done in song and, while the first song of the show brimmed with energy, it didn’t pack quite the satirical punch of some of the later songs. The incorporation of live music, played by the cast on instruments kept to one side of the cluttered stage, was inspired. Drums, guitars, a keyboard and even a violin blended (mostly) seamlessly with the action, punctuating and accentuating the work of the enthusiastic cast. The only part of the sound design that didn’t really work for me was the gunshots that the cast tried to keep time with when they were shooting their guns (always a tricky one). The guns in general were always going to be difficult. A choice was made to maintain reality in the way the guns were handled – installing ammo cartridges, checking safeties, etc. The flipside of this was that the casual attitude of the town’s citizens towards the guns – added to the noise of plastic on plastic as the guns were handled – started to infect me as an audience member. By the end of the show, the natural aversion to a gun (for me, a similar feeling to when I see a spider) had faded considerably.

The lighting design (Uther Dean and Charlotte Pleasants, operated by Charlotte Pleasants) was a bit patchy at times and some of the transitions were a little slow, but there were some inspired moments. Of particular note were the use of tight focus on a single face in the centre of the stage and a scene in a car where a woman is tormented by a series of floating heads.

Gunplay is about a school shooting, and post-introduction, that event is dispensed with fairly smartly. Paul Rothwell coaxes us through the aftermath of the shooting, showing the horror and disbelief of the township, irrespective of their personal beliefs about gun-control laws. The ensuing weeks reveal the grief and anger of individual members of the town and how they react to what has happened. They look for someone to blame – some people’s long-held views flip-flop, while those of others become more entrenched.
Now, while this sounds like it could be gut-wrenching and arduous watching, it isn’t. The amount of ‘inappropriate’ laughter was fantastic – the funeral of one of the victims had me practically rolling in the aisles, which felt oh-so-wrong and yet so right. In no way was this contentious topic treated with delicacy and tact, which was somehow perfect. There were moments of golden comedy and most of the characters had a lovely blend of self-aware stereotype (a fair bit of direct address to the audience) with a kernel of truth as we watched their journeys.

The show is a combination of songs, stylised theatrical moments, gun-control debates and interpersonal relationships. Some of these work better than others and the play could do with a bit of judicious trimming in terms of characters and scenes – particularly towards the last third of the show, where things get a bit muddled, thematically. The moments of out-and-out debate could probably be dispensed with, as there’s an extent to which they end up preaching to the converted (I acknowledge this could have a different effect if played to a US audience, however). The beauty of the medium of theatre is what we are shown, not told – and the strongest parts of Gunplay reinforce that.

I see from the playwright’s note that he was given a list of actors and carte blanche to write characters for them. The problem with this approach is that I’m sure there is an inclination to make sure you give each character ‘enough to do’. In large ensemble pieces, this can end up with an unwieldy number of storylines and Gunplay veers dangerously close to that edge. Standout performances, however, came from Michael Ness as the sheriff and Jonny Potts as a gun purveyor; they both elicit sympathy from the audience as men stuck in a world where their longstanding beliefs were being turned on their heads. Jean Sergent and Brianne Kerr were also noteworthy, as somewhat faded starlets. They inhabited their respective stereotypes to the full, making them unwittingly tragic characters.

Gunplay is quite a ride. The need for trimming is only for the purposes of tightening the play – at 1 hour 45 minutes without interval, I was engaged for the entire piece and I came away with a (slightly wry) smile on my face. I would love to see a cast of Americans perform this show in the States – we’re quite good at poking at the USA, but it would be a real achievement to lend them Gunplay as a mirror.

 

Gunplay runs until August 24.

You can book tickets here.

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