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Stuff
Etcetera Theatre
20th August 2015

★★★★☆

Publicity image for Stuff

Photography © Nick Edwards Photography

As the saying goes, you can't take it all with you. With that in mind, when Xav (Karl Greenwood) finds out he's terminally ill, he thinks nothing of going round to see his bessie mate Jess (Eve Burley) and her husband Toby (Peter Ash) to make them a generous gift. It's not just cash he's willing to leave them though, it's also... Stuff.

Xav is the sort of friend you love to spend time with in small doses, because if you spend any longer with him, you'd end up trying to kill him. Although, given he's dying anyway... Poor taste? Well, it's nothing that Xav himself wouldn't joke about, his sense of humour has no limits, and he's permanently in a playful happy-go-lucky mood. Jess is clearly struggling to cope with the inevitable loss of her best friend, but Xav's breezy attitude refuses to acknowledge that he might too be upset on any level. Life goes on, at least for now, and he's determined to continue making the most of it.

With Jess and Toby unable to conceive naturally due to a problem with Toby's sperm, Xav's offer to be a donor is incredibly thoughtful, but buried under plenty of jokes. This means we focus more on Toby's emotional response, because his feelings are a lot closer to the surface. Although Toby loves his wife and he does want to have a baby with her, his inability to naturally father a child has chipped away at his masculinity, and he clearly feels like a failure.

Jess and Xav giggle as he struggles to open a jar of picked onions, however having not succeeded at the one thing he perceives to be so incredibly important, there's no way Toby's going to let anyone score any more points, no matter how small. In this scene, director Alice Barlett really brings out Toby's negative feelings of self-worth and yet retains plenty of humour. It's also telling that Toby just can't bear hearing Xav describe his potential present as anything other than "stuff". It would make the reality too visceral for him and he's not entirely ready to face it yet. It's not just the words that we do hear that reveal the characters' innermost thoughts, it's the ones which they refuse to utter.

Jess is immediately enthusiastic, verbalising the horrible truth that it makes sense using Xav's swimmers given he'll be long dead by the time the baby is born, and that's bound to make things less complicated in the future. If we're honest, we had the same thought too, just couldn't bring ourselves to admit it. Jess however is braver than us, she has to be - she's fighting for a shot at motherhood and given the sheer amount of lists and charts she's drawn up, we'd be blind not to realise it's a deal-breaker for her. For a very brief moment, we catch a glimpse of something in Greenwood's eyes - it turns out Xav can feel sad, he just hides it well.

Ultimately, Xav's motives aren't driven out of malice or anything similar, he's merely trying to be a good friend. This doesn't stop old insecurities resurfacing for Toby, or Jess from picking a fight with her husband - the desire to have a child skews their normal behaviours. There are so many complex emotions in Mick Cooper's script, but he tackles them with sensitivity, writing Jess and Toby as a very relatable pair facing not uncommon marital problems. Xav feels like the sort of zany character you couldn't make up, with Cooper even managing to make him seem credible.

You find yourself sympathising with all three protagonists, and that's what makes the writing so powerful. It's about three people trying to do the right thing - they're not entirely sure what that is, and neither are we. They're feeling their way along, and the only way they'll make it to the end is by leaning on each other. Stuff is about friendship as much as it is about parenthood. Surprisingly poignant and tearjerking for a play with so many bad taste jokes in it, you don't need to have kids or want kids to relate to this, you just have to have a beating heart.

Stuff opened on 20th August and runs until 23rd August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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