This weekend come to the Theatre on King (TTOK) in downtown Peterborough to take a journey through the dark world of British playwright Howard Brenton, as directors Shannon McKenzie and Lindy Finlan present two of his short plays, Gum and Goo and Heads.
Featuring the talents of Ange Sorensen, Mark McGilvray, and Derek Bell, both Gum and Goo and Heads are filled with dark humour, dynamic visuals, and compelling character studies within creepy little stories that will twist your emotions and rattle your nerves. This is horror-induced theatre done with a touch of whimsy, but filled with disturbing performances that leave the audience speechless.
Gum and Goo and Heads are two of five short plays written by Howard Brenton packaged under the title “Plays for the Poor Theatre”, intended for small theatrical companies as they have with minimal production and cast requirements but still contain complex themes.
Both making their stage debut on the London stage in 1969, the two plays are different from one another in tone, although both are essentially stories revealing the evil within the human condition. While Heads is a black comedy about one woman’s search for the perfect man, Gum and Goo is a psychodrama dealing with innocence, evil, and the darkness of the soul.
Shannon McKenzie directs Gum and Goo, in which Ange Sorensen plays Mary, an autistic girl who retreats into her own mind during moments of distress where she confers with Gum (Derek Bell) and Goo (Mark McGilvray), the gremlins that live in the darkness in her head. Although on the outside Mary seems victimized and helpless, within her mind a terrifying figure emerges who combines childlike innocence with unbridled evil.
Through a series of interactions between Mary and people she encounters, including playground bullies, a dirty old man, her suffering parents, and a police officer (all performed by Derek and Mark), a new type of horror emerges as the audience hopes that Mary doesn’t really know what she is talking about, although they know that she probably does.
What is interesting about Gum and Goo is that the play opens with Derek and Mark as the schoolyard bullies, identified as being 11 and 12 years old, who seem to have an unknowing sense of evil within their childish dialogue. However, their sense of cruelty is just a soft set-up to the secrets that lie in Mary’s mind, and the ideas that her gremlins attempt to bring to the surface.
Ange Sorensen’s performance as Mary is pure brilliance. She is a child who is simple yet complex, and can seem so helpless and unknowing yet terrifying and dangerous. There are these moments where she seems to completely let go of all of her human inhibitions, and gives herself over to the madness of the character — especially during extreme emotional moments where she allows herself to cry and flail her body around the stage wildly.
She also delivers her lines in a childlike “sing-song” delivery, but finishes with this impish grin and glowing eyes, penetrating the audience’s collective heart with pure terror. Ange’s performance as Mary is one of the rawest and most engaging performances I’ve seen on any stage in a long while, and could be capable of creating nightmares for the people who witness this powerful performance.
Gum and Goo also includes some haunting lighting design, created by Shannon McKenzie, which includes the cast illuminating themselves with flashlights. Timed just right, these simple effects create a chilling visual image that will stay burnt into the memories of audience members.
Just how powerful is Gum and Goo? Well, during the dress rehearsal’s intermission, a small group of TTOK regulars was stunned speechless at the performance they had just been witnessed. For a theatre where just about anything can happen (and it usually does), that says a lot to the effectiveness of Gum and Goo. It really is something special.
Thankfully, Gum and Goo is paired with Heads, directed by Lindy Finlan, which is essentially a clever comedy but with its own twisted moments of darkness. This time Ange plays Megan, a woman in love with two men: Rock, played by Mark, who is a bodybuilder with few brains; and Brian, played by Derek, who is an intellectual with no confidence.
While Megan claims to love both men, it becomes clear she loves Rock only for his body, and Brian only for his mind, but is repulsed by what each man doesn’t have. To find true romance, Megan has to take some extreme measures to get the man that she really wants.
While Gum and Goo is truly Ange’s show, in Heads Mark and Derek get their moments to shine, giving incredible comedic performances as Rock and Brian. While Rock worships his own body, Brian gets off on his own intellect. By playing with voice, posturing and body language, not to mention some clever costuming, Derek and Mark create these characters to be charming and lovable despite their obvious flaws.
But what becomes far more interesting than their relationship with Megan is the relationship eventually created between the two men. As TTOK’s Kate Story rightfully pointed out at the end of the performance, the tenderest moments of the entire night belong to the two male characters during the show’s final moments.
While Derek and Mark take the spotlight in Heads, once again Ange gives a dynamic performance as Megan. Vain and conniving, Megan is an effective foil in how she uses both her body and her mind simultaneously to get what she wants.
Megan is dangerous to Brian and Rock because she has both of the men’s dominant traits, using her gifts to her own advantage. She really doesn’t want Brian and Rock for what they are; essentially, she’s looking for a man who is more like herself. Ange plays sexy evil genius very well.
While all three charcters are essentially one-dimensional stereotypes, if performed well they eventually break out of their tropes and reveal unexpected sides to themselves. The cast of Heads manage to do this beautifully, creating endearing characters that all become audience favourites.
Although Shannon McKenzie and Lindy Finlan are well known within the Peterborou8gh theatrical community for their many various contributions over the years, Gum and Goo and Heads are their directorial debuts. However, their years in theatre have already made them seasoned pros, and that’s reflected in the quality of these two short plays. Together Shannon and Lindy have created one of the most dynamic, smart and haunting nights of theatre that I’ve experienced in a while.
With a trio of extremely talented performers, this double bill of Howard Brenton plays is a perfect night of theatre you shouldn’t miss. These are shows that people will be talking about for months to come, and are sure to enter the canon of TTOK classics.
Gum and Goo and Heads open on Thursday, March 14th and run until Saturday, March 16th at The Theatre on King (171 King St., Peterborough). Tickets are $15 or pay what you can, and the show starts at 8 p.m.