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Robbie's Date
The Courtyard Theatre
21st January 2015

★★★★☆

As an accountant, January is pretty much the worst time of year for me. It's full of deadlines, rain and people expecting you to magic tax returns out of bags of crumpled receipts. No, seriously, that does happen. However, no matter how bad a day you think you've had, Robbie's Date will put all your troubles in perspective. You may be close to walking out of your white collar job, but unemployed petty criminal Robbie (Rob Leach) is having dinner with a lovely new lady friend, Gemma (Lily Lovett) - whilst his older brother, Carl (Tommy O'Neil) sits bang in the middle, creeping her out and explaining why his sibling is more like Kirk from Coronation Street than a rippling love god. With friends (well family!) like that, who needs enemies?

Lily Lovett and Tommy O Neil as Gemma and Carl

Photography provided by The Courtyard Theatre

Initially you expect this is going to be a gentle romantic comedy, with Leach's performance verging on the overblown, his anxiety and constant fidgeting immediately making him a figure of fun, rather than a rounded, relatable character. As he wipes his sweaty hands dry before opening the door and awkwardly discusses breastfeeding with his date (a young mum), he's a clown, that's all. But as Carl's cruel tendencies become even more obvious, Leach is able to play against him and bring out more depth to his character and the unexpectedly dark direction in which the story moves really does elevate the piece into something special. You show me a cake and ordinarily I'll show you the space where a cake used to be. Here though, looking at a mere Victoria sponge, my heart absolutely broke for Robbie and Carl - all of their miserable childhood suddenly captured in egg, sugar and flour.

Designer Christianna Mason's work is cleverer than you think, from the set's dodgy front door to the gaping holes in the walls, with dingy smoke-damaged wallpaper and an alarming box of rat poison just lying around. Robbie is trapped in a pitiful lifestyle and this is emphasised not only by the way that people treat him, but by his dilapidated surroundings. Playwright Michelle Douglass doesn't really attempt to explain why Robbie can't get a job (it would have been easy to refer to the economic downturn or even Robbie's clear lack of both life skills and formal education, but she glosses over that), but her characterisation and back stories are otherwise excellent. Robbie and Carl are particularly complex. There are reasons to sympathise with and hate both of them, with the audience left to debate how much really is their own doing and how much is out of their hands.

While the story revolves around the disturbing brotherly dynamic, as a subplot, neighbour Gini (Kerry Willison-Parry) fights bitterly with her husband Jim, threatening to leave, but always going back. The speed with which she changes her mind is alarmingly upsetting - like Robbie, she too is trapped in a rather miserable cycle, that should be easy to break and just isn't. We're under the impression that Gini gives as good as she gets, and this isn't a case of domestic abuse, but it is toxic, and that alone is desperately sad. She may be a minor character, but her inclusion is still important, contrasting the fraught end of a relationship with the beginning of one.

The pacing is uneven in the first third and the sound design rough around the edges at times, but this doesn't hurt the overall finish. Director Ella Marchment skilfully deals with the shift into seriousness and captures so many heartbreakingly bleak moments well. The mention of Gemma's ex, the arguments over cake - I genuinely felt suckerpunched, an uneasy feeling in my stomach connecting me with the characters' pain. This is a play which builds up to a powerful and brutal explosion, delicately layered.

You could well argue the epilogue is unnecessary, but it wraps up all loose ends and leaves us with a bittersweet, beautifully framed conclusion. Given the emotional journey and on-the-money characters, it's hard to believe it's only an hour. It doesn't take long for you to get drawn into the other reality on stage, and for you to lose hold of time. Robbie's Date is a carefully constructed 60 minutes you won't want to miss. As Paddy would say, you'll like the look of this one, so leave your lights on and let the four see the stars.

Robbie's Date opened on 20th January and runs until 24th January 2015 at the Courtyard Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Old Street (Northern)



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