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Wingman
Soho Theatre
9th September 2014

★★★★☆

Jerome Wright and Richard Marsh as Len and Richard

Photography supplied by the Soho Theatre

When you spend all your time at the theatre, you start to worry there will come a point when all shows start to blend into one. I thought I had reached that awful peak when Wingman began, but very quickly I realised I had actually seen the show before. Phew. It may have come to the Soho Theatre following a successful run in Edinburgh, but I first saw Wingman as a very rough rehearsed reading at the 2013 Nursery Festival. The basic premise remains the same: it's about an estranged father and son trying to reconnect, but there's more substance to it now. I remember thinking at the time that Richard Marsh's writing had plenty of promise, but that the idea hadn't quite been developed enough - well, Wingman has since flown the nest, and he's gliding with confidence.

Richard (played by Marsh himself) is the same quietly angry character I met before, full of sarcasm and outward stoicism, but his dad, Len (Jerome Wright) seems older and infinitely more annoying. He's still very much a geezer, but one who's more firmly entrenched in retirement, making music out of old floppy disks and abusing his free bus pass. A new plotline involving Richard's colleague Brigitte brings more emotional depth to the entire piece and neatly links in with Len's desperate desire for a second shot at fatherhood. Wingman isn't just a funny play about one man's dad helping him hit on fit birds any more; it's evolved into an examination of what it means to be a parent.

Marsh's style of writing is reminiscent of Andrew Maddock's; both playwrights have a pleasingly lyrical style which works most of the time and only occasionally falters. Here for instance, "leaves" and "blackberries" are a little forced. Maddock's latest offering, The Me Plays, is semi-autobiographical and given he has named his protagonist after himself, I do wonder if Marsh has ploughed a similar honesty into his work.

Richard certainly seems genuine enough - most of the time that translates into genuinely vexed, his sardonic tendencies a reminder of the mum who made bad knock-knock jokes and vandalised a sign on her hosptal ward for a cheap laugh. He's always quick to attack and rarely gives that much away, but having been let down by Len as a child, Marsh's muted reactions are fitting with the character's back story. The writer has apparently recently had a child himself, so he has taken some inspiration from real life, but I won't ask if that disabled toilet is a manifestation of this. Some questions are just better left unanswered...

Jerome Wright and Richard Marsh as Len and Richard

Photography supplied by the Soho Theatre

Although we don't get to spend much time with Richard's mum, we do have enough to know how important she is with him and the imprint she leaves behind. We hear of a "fierce love" between the pair, and the bond is still strong following her death, with Richard initially firmly against a reconciliation with Len because he sees him as the man who hurt his mum when he walked out. If you ever find Richard's treatment of Len is childish or hurtful, it only serves to make it more plausible: there's nothing like a scrap with family to bring out your most juvenile and vitriolic behaviour.

It's a nice touch that although both men are dressed very differently - oh, Len, the 60s called and they want their suit back - both wear stripes, with Richard's defiantly pointing the other way. As much as Richard tries to deny the common ground between the pair, there are more similarities than he would like to acknowledge. And Len is nothing if not persistent.

When I first saw Wingman, the only props used were a couple of chairs, which I put down to the fact it was a very early scratch night. Director Justin Audibert has chosen to keep things simple in contrast to how complicated the plot has become. The chairs stand in for cars, a bathtub - even a trampoline. And whenever the actors describe different clothes or props which can't be realised by chairs, there's no attempt to show them through anything other than pure imagination. It wouldn't be difficult or expensive to source a cheap container, but the hot pink awfully garish plastic urn in my head is probably funnier than the reality. It also keeps the focus on the wordplay - the real strength to the piece - anything else would be distracting.

Wright and Marsh have been collaborating together on this show for long enough for the dynamic to feel real - they're an odd twosome muddling along and this leads to some very funny, tender and poignant scenes. Watching the two of them in action, in many respects, I feel like I'm Len. I saw this play not long after its birth, disappeared, and only came back after it had already grown up. But Wingman is all about second chances and redemption, and after not singing Marsh's praises the first time, I now have the chance to speak up.

All strands of the story come together neatly - perhaps too neatly for some - and Brigitte is underused and superficially written. But having acknowledged those flaws, they really don't detract from the overall enjoyment for me. Wingman is a carefully-constructed and moving kitchen sink drama and coming of age tale all wrapped up in one deliberately farcical, free-flowing melodious mess. There may be better ways to spend 70 minutes, but I can't immediately think of any.

Wingman opened on 2nd September and runs until 20th September 2014 at the Soho Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Tottenham Court Road (Northern, Central)



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