A stellar performance almost carries middling material.
So many one-actor shows are, if nothing else, triumphs of energy and memory: regardless or how we rate the performance, it’s genuinely impressive that a person can shoulder the burden of a story and hold an audience’s focus for so long. Yet equally, the words of Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park spring to mind. I often have the sense that certain theatre-makers were so preoccupied with what they could do that they don’t stop to think about whether they should do it.
That thought materialised an hour into Pilgrim, which I caught in the theatre tent of Electric Picnic 2015, and which just finished a run at Smock Alley Theatre. There was another quarter of an hour to go in this tale of a young man returning from a few debauched months to face his responsibilities: in this case, his unborn child and a very angry mother-to-be. It’s a rather familiar story, though Philip Doherty’s protagonist Christy (Rex Ryan) takes an Odyssean turn given the day he makes his return: September 11, 2001. Laid up for several days in rural Canada, with nobody but well-meaning locals and his fellow ‘plane people’ for company, the self-destructive nihilist Christy hits bottom, confronts his own failings and emerges ready to face grown-up existence.
If this tale of maturity delayed seems like a recipe for mediocrity, it is. It’s elevated, however, by Rex Ryan’s energy and uncanny ability to inhabit each character. This is no mean feat: at a conservative estimate, there are about 27 different people scattered throughout the story. And yet this is strangely unsatisfying because, with a few of the less necessary, stereotypical or repetitive characters in the mix, Ryan might have had more chance to make those that actually matter a lot more impactful. It’s a magnificent one-man performance, let down by writing that often goes around in circles without saying all too much.
That’s not to say that there aren’t fine moments – an exchange with an older local, filled with insights unsaid, is genuinely touching. The play is at its best when the writing is least showy, and at its worst when it lapses into monologues laden with the irritating rhyming-in-lieu-of-pathos-or-original-thought so beloved by under-edited playwrights everywhere. There is a very good play in here, but it would only come out with a serious edit and about a half-hour shaved from the running time. It’s a tribute to Ryan’s performance that, for so long, these failings are forgotten. It’s only on reflection that Pilgrim’s status as a half-finished good play – an a missed opportunity – becomes apparent.