The Hope Theatre, Thursday 6 August 2015

Twenty one years has brought a new sense of distance onto one of the earliest examples of In-yer-face theatre. Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator, which premiered at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1994, may thrust deeply into some hard-hitting themes – rape, homophobia, porn, bestiality and violence, to name just a few – but time has corroded the impact of the piece. Now, despite a modern injection of internet porn, iPlayer and Julian Assange, there’s something positivity kitsch about the play’s foolhardy application of controversial ideas.

Around a table decorated by beer labels and explicit playing cards, watched by two teddy bears that, while evidently corrupted, still serve as a fading beacon to innocence, housemates Max and Alan – portrayed with an excellent dynamic by Alexander Pardey and Jolyon Price, negotiate with a stereotypical portrait of modern masculinity. While Alan is out of the house, Max takes the opportunity to catch up with fantasies and film, before his milky hand emerges from under the duvet. After Alan, an evidently more restrained and mildly-mannered man, makes his return, Max dodges out of his friend’s sight to clean his nose and snack on his findings. There’s something over-laboured about the shock factor here, which is mirrored by jokes that struggle under the weight of just that little bit too much explanation.

That said, there are also moments of great clarity in this production, and Penetrator is strongest when it shows that it can do more than merely shock. The housemates debate feminism while playing the card game “Come On Her Tits” (street names: Spit, Speed or Slam). At another point, Pardey elegantly captures the zeitgeist of clubbing culture, as he describes a night spent taking drugs and dancing to “one three hour song that sounds like various international dialling codes”. His recollections come in the form of a list of banal observations, yet shrewdly work as testament to a good night out. As a third character enters the scene – bringing with him the question of who’s threatened and who’s the threat – Pardey, with the unholy energy of a young Simon Pegg left to marinate in a stock of lads mags for a month, is a master at balancing shamelessness and sensitivity, artfully creating the fragile dichotomy that is this Penetrator’s saving grace.

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