Off Broadway Reviews
When the lights come up (and the actors are on stage as the audience enters), we meet Mark (Corey Montague-Sholay), who is nineteen years old and works in a café. Turning to the audience, he says he is compelled to tell the story of his relationship with Darren (William Robinson), who has, after several years, dropped by the restaurant and has ordered a bacon roll.
Flashback four years, and Mark is a new student at St. Michael's. Very smart, painfully shy, Mark lives with his supportive single mother, and his only companion is an energetic Labrador named Barney. Darren, a knife-wielding bully, lives with his abusive and perpetually unemployed father. He is consistently suspended from school and spends most of his afternoons in detention. The two boys are unexpectedly drawn to each other, and their passionate affair is marked by obsession, sexual coercion, and physical violence.
Swithinbank neatly captures the juvenile and dangerous ardor that commences with teasing and innuendo and quickly becomes savage and sadistic. In particular, a madcap adventure on a stolen bike concludes with a scene of unforgivable barbarity.
There are not enough glimmers of tenderness, though, to make the audience root for this impossible love (as we do the two young men of Beautiful Thing, for instance). Perhaps that's the point, but the sympathetic distancing drains the ending of an emotional wallop. (At the performance I attended, the final moments were inexcusably marred by a prolonged cellphone ring, which contributed to the sense of a dispiriting denouement.)
Directed by Matthew Iliffe, the production effectively captures the vicissitudes of the burgeoning romance. The central set piece is an oversized seesaw that extends nearly the entire width of the stage. (Natalie Johnson, who is also credited with the costumes, which consist of appropriate school and café uniforms, designed the striking set.) The boys' continual teetering and tottering with occasional periods of balanced equanimity forcefully reflects the shifting and precarious power struggles. (Ryan Joseph Stafford's stark lighting and laser-sharp neon effects contribute to the narrative's unflinching austerity.)
The two actors, who have been with the play since its premiere at London's Finborough Theatre in 2022, are excellent. Montague-Sholay is endearing as the nerdy and sexually conflicted fifteen-year-old, which makes the older, narrator version of the character more heartbreaking. As Darren, Robinson tempers the character's cruelty and savagery with glimpses of vulnerability and sadness stemming from a malevolent home life. He is so good, we almost come around to liking him.
Although Montague-Sholay and Robinson are the only two performers, they people the world of the play by assuming a range of personas and voices. (The sound design by Mwen cleverly locates the action through references to a rich aural environment.) Shifts in time and locale skillfully reveal the characters' shattered psyches.
Swithinbank's play may ultimately seem a little underdone, but the performances and production elements make Bacon an experience worth savoring.