“Toxic masculinity” has been a hot topic over the last 18 months – but anyone who’s graduated from a British university in the last decade knows the extent it permeates any freshers week – no matter how progressive the institution you’re attending might be. While at university we have different words for it though – we say it’s part of “lad culture”. Lad culture involves heavy drinking, humiliating games and of course, “shanter” (that is, s*** banter).
Maisie Brooker’ ambitious debut play is set at a typical British music festival, exactly one year after three childhood friends have left school. Amber (played by Brooker herself), Hamish (Cameron Fraser) and Sam (Eden Stewart) are looking forward to a weekend of debauchery, when two figures from their past appear – the painfully innocent Bertie (Jordan Clarke) the only one of the gang who’s made it to university, and Noah (Conor Delaney), who suddenly left for America two and a half years ago. Both bring painful memories and awkward truths, which slowly derail a weekend which was supposed to be carefree.
Its sparse but well judged set is appealing, and some nice touches (wrist bands on entry, a “festival safety guide” is handed out on the door) make the set convincingly immersive.
The play is very often funny with some genuine laughs, and the dialogue is impeccably observed – Brooker clearly has a good ear for the speech patterns and verbal tics of her generation. Its sharp and witty hyper-realism is one of the real stand-outs of the play, and is engaging enough to enjoyably carry you through this attempted dissection of lad culture at its very worst.
The cast is certainly talented, and strong, earnest performances are given by all. Stand-out stars are Brooker who delivers her lines with impeccable comic timing, and Clarke who delivers a a delicate performance as the essentially well-meaning boy who is led astray by the bullish friends he’s made at university.
Bertie is, unfortunately, underused as a character – he really embodies what is ostensibly the theme of the entire play. The plot itself is clumsy, and is driven on by some terribly obvious plot devices which add little and serve little purpose other than to provide a vague storyline on which Brooker can hang her brilliant dialogue.
Brooker’s attempt to skewer lad culture and its worst excesses are almost totally sidelined in the second half of the play by a lazy romance subplot which could be done away with. Its brilliant humour too, is sometimes its undoing, with some odd tonal missteps – despite the play frequently being laugh out loud, I’m sure the sniggers from the audience at the play’s climax was not the intended effect.
Regardless, it is a valiant debut, which although clumsy, has its successes too. With some more time and further development Shanter could be a very good play indeed – and Brooker a very good playwright.