Teenage hormones know no bounds, can embarrass at all manner of times and tend to prevent any attempt at vaguely human communication. But the star of Douglas Maxwell’s Mancub suffers from far more than just a breaking voice, and will roar rather than squeak – most of the time – when pressed to act on instinct.
Paul has his head firmly in the clouds, or canopies… as the set aims to portray. Fairy lights flicker in the trees with each member of the cast wandering around in (what are essentially) glorified loin cloths, miles and years away from modern civilisation in appearance, but still in touch with modern trifles such as the distractions of video games, and a mum who thinks she belongs in an American sitcom. Paul’s about the only one who is at home in the wonderfully designed jungle backdrop, especially when he ‘becomes’ a gorilla, a fly, or even a duck. However, as clever lighting, with varying intensity, illuminates abbreviated snapshots of Paul’s dreamy reality, we begin to see the American sitcom turn into more of a horror story.
Will Heyes shows up as a fully relatable and sincere Paul, talking at the audience for much of the play with a contemplative wonder and making nervousness seem about as natural and dignified as a fish out of water. He navigates a tough role, in which he is narrating, acting as well as energetically flinging himself across the stage. Even when Heyes fumbles his lines, he manages to pass it off as a characteristic of Paul’s rather than his, and counterbalances the slightly overbearing caricature offered from the remaining cast members. There are times when he seems to be wedged in between several clichés; the fake Middle class family who pretend they’re all happy, his best mate’s strict, and painstakingly Jewish grandmother, not to mention an over-aggressive PE teacher who treats every game like it’s the best, worst and last 90 minutes of his life – shouting at Paul (the keeper) to become a cat. This, of course, he does do, and if there’s anything to especially heap praise upon in this play it’s the crisp script, each scene referencing earlier scenes; repeating words and phrases in keeping with the story. That’s not to overshadow the outstanding light-displays or the acting. If Joe Bates and Liz Cooke do occasionally deliver caricatures, they still work in favour of Mancub’s endearing charm, with Bates’ impersonation of a dog and Cooke’s rendition of a mindless biology teacher (not forgetting their deft switches to several other characters) adding a large helping of humour to the mix.
And the mix is largely spot-on; despite the darker undertones of Paul’s imagination, which has him shape-shifting with every mood, and inexplicably lashing out, the constant supply of on-tap laughter makes his state one of pitiable tragedy – you can’t help but feel sorry for the boy who is simply unable to be what his mum tells him he is: normal. Imaginative, touching and brilliantly surreal, Mancub is a genuine treat.