Ash Flanders’ one-man show End Of starts off like a stand-up comedy before dropping us into a deep well of elegiac reflection, says Jinghua Qian
It’s funny, very funny. Flanders – who founded Sisters Grimm with friend and writing partner Declan Greene, now artistic director at Griffin Theatre – has impeccable comic timing, making the audience roar with laughter before he’s even said a word.
The setup is that Flanders gets a job transcribing police interviews, and the set and costume design by Nathan Burmeister is a roast of a millennial artist dropped in a generic corporate environment: water cooler, wastepaper bin, nondescript grey carpet, stacks of Keji archive boxes, and Flanders in tight jeans and a vintage patterned shirt. It’s “the first regular job I’ve had since wearing fangs in a theatre restaurant”, he quips, but just as you think you know how this is going to go – a self-deprecating riff on late capitalism and the precarity of arts labour, perhaps – it morphs into a linguistic analysis of unfinished sentences that then leads into Flanders’s childhood.
“End of” is the catchphrase of his heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, no-fucks-given mother Heather, who screams to life in Flanders’s anecdotes, cackling and brawling and sometimes gleefully sadistic. He jokes that he probably got his name from her calling for an ashtray. Flanders picks apart the syntax of different situations, from the “triple hitters”’ of affirmation we devolve into when we’re nervous (“yeah okay alright”) to the way that the transcription company demands “all structure, no expression”. His performance is almost annoyingly magnetic and his writing is sharp in a way that makes the later warmth of the story all the more cutting.
‘Flanders’ performance is almost annoyingly magnetic and his writing is sharp in a way that makes the later warmth of the story all the more cutting’
Flanders takes us on a meandering journey from the transcription office to a western suburbs knackery to a nursing home theatre class. We hurtle through anecdotes with occasional callbacks and meta digressions and then Flanders tugs at these various memories and somehow draws them into a kind of lineage. We get to know his family, particularly the dramatic and hilarious Irish side, and we climb inside his fear, during a bad acid trip, that he no longer gets the joke. We come close to death, and then find ourselves in the present day, where Flanders’s parents are now both older than any of his grandparents ever got to be. Heather, who once terrorised the schoolboys of Brighton, is now increasingly frail.
For Gen Xers and Millennials, a lot of the conventional milestones marking adulthood have sunk into the mud. Doubly so for artists, and queers, and queer artists, for whom those milestones have never really applied. So there’s nothing to warn you that you’re entering middle age, nothing to foretell the gradual, relative shift until suddenly you realise you’re the one worried about your parents, you’re the one who’s supposed to be responsible. End Of sneaks up on you, like your parents ageing, to punch you in the guts.
End Of, by Ash Flanders, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. Set and costume design by Nathan Burmeister, lighting design by Rachel Burke, sound design by Tom Backhaus. Northcote Town Hall.