Bag of Beard Theatre bring their latest work to The Old Red Lion Theatre, for just two performances in a special sharing ahead of a planned tour next year. Renaissance Men by James Patrick, is an exquisitely written piece of avant-garde theatre, which is bursting with heart in an exploration of toxic masculinity and nostalgia.
It centres around three friends; Irvine, an aspiring erotic novelist with a dark secret which is evidently finding its way in to his work, his flat mate Winston, who always seems to be trying to get off the booze, and Quentin an ‘arty’ type who is convinced he’s found a forgotten masterpiece in the British Heart Foundation shop.
Described as a dark comedy, Renaissance Men is undeniably funny, philosophical jokes mix easily with casual one liners, and the banter between friends feels nothing like a script, but a genuine dialogue being improvised between real friends. Where the first half is ripe with comedy, the second half takes a darker turn, initiated by the arrival of Mr Sutcliffe, played with intimidating coolness by Jack Gogarty, which unlocks Irvine’s secret. What follows comes as a gut-punching shock, and yet on reflection all the clues had already been subtly woven through the earlier discourse.
Indeed, every line has been carefully constructed to ensure that not one second of the seventy-minute running time is wasted. Seemingly abstract comments have a definite purpose, and by the end it feels like the final jigsaw piece has fallen in to place. The characters too, are remarkably well established in a relatively short space of time, it doesn’t take you long to realise that Mr Sutcliffe isn’t being entirely honest with the group of friends, or indeed himself, or that Quentin’s Nokia 3310 is less of a symbol of his rebellion against a corporation, but his own lack of funds.
The actual revelation and its aftermath could have had some more time spent on it, in order to really explore how each of the characters would have responded, and in particular how Irvine would heal. But that would mean extending to possibly including a second act, and that may just be a detriment to the overall dynamic. Renaissance Men feels like a painting in an art gallery, we see just enough of these people to understand their current situation, no more or less is required.
Sam Heron gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Irvine, his hunched frame and quiet tone the outward manifestation of the yet undisclosed internal struggle. James Demaine as Winston on the other hand, positively effervesces with impish spirit, occasionally chipping in as the voice of reason, only to be led astray by one or more of the other characters.
Alexander Knott plays the unshaven and dishevelled Quentin with just the right amount of eccentricity, his dramatic flair providing the set-up and punchline to many of the jokes. The character could easily have been misconstrued, but in the capable hands of Knott becomes the linchpin of the whole production.
Directing, in collaboration with the company, Ryan Hutton has succeeded in recognising the soul of James Patrick’s script, delicately drawing it out on the stage in fascinating detail. When Irvine writes on his typewriter it evokes a feeling of innocence that would be otherwise difficult to convey, while the short musical interludes (composed by Sam Heron) realign us to the central plot. The overall result is a rich aesthetic filled with well-defined and three-dimensional characters.
With Renaissance Men, Bag of Beard show themselves to be at the forefront of contemporary theatre with this simple but profoundly important play. Behind the comedy and tragedy is a story of hope, and a bond of friendship that will seemingly go unbroken, James Patrick’s script is a work of art in itself, and brought to life in wide brush strokes of captivating realism.