[Drink the Kool-aid]
The best theatre is full of surprises. Not cheap or outlandish plot twists, but the organic sort of surprises that feel like the missing pieces of a puzzle. The sort of surprises that leave audiences smiling in awe. Andrew Gunn’s Potato Stamp Megalomaniac digs these out in spades.
Andrew tells us to think of the show as a revolution rather than a play. And that’s exactly what it is. What could be a straightforward monologue about a manic episode is turned into a collective tour through a pivotal moment in his life, with Andrew himself playing multiple friends, flatmates and figures, switching roles with breakneck speed and clarity. Though the narrative is threaded through a growing obsession with potato stamp typography, it deviates and digresses wonderfully into a myriad of topics. Whether talking about honey bees or the limitations of language, the messy structure and shape of the play stays true to the spirit of the script, resulting in a work that lifts the mundane into the grandiose. Never did I think watching someone use a potato stamp on an OHP projector could be so engaging.
The interpersonal conflicts between Andrew and other characters are no less important though. His delightfully meandering chats with close friend Hadleigh or the more confrontational moments between flatmates take us to the crux of the predicament. Though the tangents and philosophical ponderings bring us into Andrew’s head, it’s the relationships that allow us to frame how Andrew connects (or fails to) with conventional society, each incident balancing humour with discomfort in a wholly unsentimental way.
While the long traverse staging doesn’t seem the most effective for a solo show at first, the evolving ritualistic nature of the performance illuminates this decision. This is first and foremost a communal experience. In its stripped back set, designed by Christine Urquhart, each and every item has a practical use, not merely existing as ornaments or fixtures. A massive dirt pit might be the literal centerpiece of the show, but just as eye-catching is the potato synthesiser played by Tom Dennison. Top it off with Ronnie Livingstone and Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s lighting and you’ve got a moody, intimate and undeniably ritualistic ceremony. Even now, the opening of the show is cemented into my mind, where the collective design elements work together to create an atmosphere of epic proportions, unveiling Andrew to the crowd as if he were a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As a deeply subjective and personal look at a manic episode, Potato Stamp Megalomaniac isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but it’s never grueling. Andrew handles the subject matter and his audience with such a generous and inviting presence that you’ll leave with a feeling of gratitude. The play rejects the stigma associated with most mental health narratives, choosing instead to embrace his unique perspective. If, in retrospect, it feels slightly disconcerting that we’re asked to indulge these delusions of grandeur without question, in the heat of the moment it’s a helluva ride. This is tangible, living and breathing theatre. False prophet or not, consider me a convert.
Potato Stamp Megalomaniac plays at The Basement until 18 June. Details see The Basement.