MONSTER at the Ustinov Studio, Bath

Brought to the Ustinov by Worklight Theatre, Monster is a highly inventive one-man show by writer and actor Joe Sellman-Leava.  In the space of just an hour, and with few props other than a pair of red chairs, he explores the idea that we all have the potential for violence.  Behind our façade of restrained, civilised behaviour there may lurk a terrible monster.   This notion is examined in a multi-layered, personal story about his relationship with a live-in girlfriend, and his difficulties in getting to grips with rehearsals for a new play. This play features passages from Shakespeare that focus on men’s dominance, or wished-for dominance, over women. The play’s writer and director is Tim, a highly critical Scot who demands that Joe does some research in order to bring greater depth and conviction to his performance.  This research involves him taking on both the persona of boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson, and that of Patrick Stewart, the much-respected actor who has spoken in the past of his father’s alcohol-fuelled brutality.

In addition to playing himself, and giving very impressive impersonations of Tyson and Stewart, Sellman-Leava also gives us portraits of the girlfriend, Tim the director, and Sally, the other actor in the play he is rehearsing. One moment we are assaulted by Tyson’s fast-talking, misogynous rants, somehow made all the more disturbing by his lisp, and the next we are hearing Stewart’s measured, sonorous tones as he muses on the extent to which he may have inherited his father’s capacity for violence. Sellman-Leava’s ability to bring these six separate characters to life, switching from one to another with bewildering rapidity, is very impressive, and it certainly makes demands on the audience’s attentiveness – one blink, and you’ve missed an interjection from the girlfriend, or a brief couple of lines from Othello.

These rapid-fire, quick-change impersonations are very skilfully done, but this pyrotechnic display is somewhat distancing in its effect.  It is only when the pace slows, and we are given lengthier sequences that focus solely on Joe and his girlfriend, that Monster begins to pack an emotional punch.  The programme notes reveal that this play has been re-worked and re-written again and again over the last eight years.  I suspect that in that process it has become over-laden with ideas.  It is certainly packed to bursting point with words, and  I would have liked more space for it to breathe.  Nevertheless, it undoubtedly succeeds in addressing important issues in a very engaging, thought-provoking and lively way. In a time when male behaviour is the focus of so much public concern, we need plays that ask challenging questions about masculinity, patriarchy and violence. Monster is a very welcome contribution to the debate.   ★★★★☆   Mike Whitton   13th January 2018