Youth critic Gully Thompson is both enraptured and frustrated by Unicorn Theatre’s The End of Eddy
Educational theatre is something of a coin toss. It can either end with the audience’s heads tossed up in standing ovation, or their tails between their legs as they scurry out of the theatre. This is something I explored in my last review of A Not So Traditional Story, a show that worked because it trusted its audience to understand theatre. I was looking out for it while watching – or, should I say, experiencing – The End of Eddy.
While that may make me sound like an IMAX ad, but in this case it’s true because its emotional immersion means that The End of Eddy is something you experience along with the characters in its gripping story. Which is why I was both surprised and disappointed when that immersion was fractured.
The End of Eddy is an adaptation by Pamela Carter of the novel of the same name by Édouard Louis, which recounts his childhood being gay in a very poor town in regional France. (And yes, his name truly is “Eddy”, because his father heard the name on tv and thought it sounded tough; he later changed it to Édouard Louis.)
It follows Eddy Bellegueule as he grows up up in the homophobic hatred of his town, his horrific experiences with bullying and his abusive family. The play tracks five years, from 10, when he begins school, to 12, when he decides that to prevent the bullying he must “become a man”, to 15 when he leaves the town of Hallencourt behind to pursue university, the first in his family to do so.
It’s a two-man performance, with both actors – James Russell-Morley and Oseloka Obi – playing Eddy as well as the other characters. They achieve this by using a set with four televisions on stands, rolling videos of the other characters so they can interact with the live performance. This is extremely effective. The televisions are also used to display text – scene names and excerpts of dialogue and story – in a very minimalist style that I’m just a sucker for.
Behind the four televisions, and directly front of the stage, there’s a bus stop which in the story is the “local hangout zone”. I’m not entirely sure why they chose a bus stop – it’s not an integral plot point and doesn’t represent a major theme – but it does work as a nice waiting area for the actors to sit while clips play on screen.
The visual style is perfectly minimalist, white words on coloured background. Clips of the two actors’ explosive characterisation and performance juxtaposes perfectly with the background’s blank slate, highlighting the impact these actors have: their characters pop off the background slate and into reality.
The actors are outstanding. Every movement and word holds the impact of the characters they play. The performances power the play’s truly devastating emotional effect. The story is told with impeccable timing, with performances that actually have the ability to terrify, that make you understand the fear and suffering Eddy felt every day, leaving you to admire all the more this man’s perseverance through such horrific and hateful conditions.
It seems clear that these performers have read this book in extreme detail, analysing their characters with precision and channelling every aspect of these people into their characterisations. They play several roles – the abusive father, an apathetic mother, school bullies – but they feel like real people, with good sides and bad. Emotional immersion is key, creating an experience effective enough to put you into the life of Édouard Louis, which is an incredible accomplishment for any theatrical biography. Which is why I was so surprised when this immersion suddenly broke.
The first red flag that something strange was going on was at the very beginning of the show. Alongside warnings for the graphic content to come, the two performers begin to explain the book and the writer, how they have adapted the story for theatre. This felt strange to me, as it seemed like an after-show Q&A had been shifted to the beginning, or perhaps that the Q&A had become the show itself.
Throughout the evening, around three times between scenes and once at the end, the play was interrupted so that the two performers could, yet again, explain the book to us. They told us every minute detail of how they adapted it, and every change they had made. It showed that they have a great deal of respect for the book and the author’s life, but it shadowed the play’s greatest effect on the audience. It broke our immersion. Every time this happened, it felt that the play shifted from incredible biography to basic educational theatre. It felt more like an analysis than an adaptation, as if I were sitting in an English classroom instead of a theatre.
I found this really disappointing, because once the immersion was broken, I felt I couldn’t fully enjoy what really was a remarkable piece of theatre. It was as if I were reading an excellent book, and every time I finished a chapter someone read me the Cliffs Notes. The play continued, trying to reprise its previous level of emotional impact, but immersion is a hard thing to gain and an easy thing to lose. Every time the play was interrupted, it decayed a little more.
I don’t want to direct all attention to these interruptions, because apart from those moments, it’s theatre that tells a story with the impact of living the situation itself. The life of Édouard Louis, of Eddy Bellegueule, is truly honoured with all his incredible resilience. English class or not, the play is something to behold: and it ensures Eddy’s life will live on long after its end.
The End of Eddy, based on the book En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Édouard Louis, adapted by Pamela Carter, directed by Stewart Laing. Performed by James Russell-Morley and Oseloka Obi.
Wheelchair accessible event
Assistive hearing system.
Auslan interpreted performance: Saturday October 19, 2pm