Wednesday 16 January 2013


Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London


Written by Matt Reed

Directed [edited and with additional text] by Graham Hubbard

Helena Blackman and Rebecca Crookshank
Britain has always had a love affair with the comic potential of the knob-gag and as a nation we have long found the penis to be an irresistible subject of humour. In a play that could easily have been re-titled Carry On *** ( for *** insert anything at all to do with erectile dysfunction), Matt Reed’s Impotent (stop sniggering) is at times a hilarious but always provocative discourse on this most private and personal of conditions.
Set mainly in the NHS consulting room of elegant female therapist Dr Lane, the first act follows five men through their individual sessions with the doctor, whilst act two sees all the patients assembled for a group therapy session. Reed introduces most of the men’s individual sessions with a brief soliloquy to the audience from the woman in their lives who was their partner at the time of the sexual failure. All of these different women are played hilariously by the talented Jessie May, in a range that stretches from a refined country lady, through to a Serbian prostitute and May's mastery of accent and poise is one of the play’s highlights. Making further occasional interjections into the narrative are the clinic’s receptionist Kelly and her brutish alpha male of a carpet-fitter boyfriend, Tommy. Kelly is performed by Rebecca Crookshank (who boasts an astonishing career in the RAF before taking up acting) and who is another of the production’s star turns. Her scouse character who dreams of setting up her own beauty salon, delightfully totters across the stage displaying a calculated cocktail of thinly veiled contempt for the patients that she has to deal with 9-5, whilst managing her own desperate domestic insecurity that stallion Tommy, played by Randall Lyon, might stray. Lyon is another cracking performer. Whilst his character may not be an intellectual, his physical presence is as eloquent as his words and the frequent frantic (offstage) copulation of this pair is a neat contrast to the frustrations of the suffering five.
First of the flaccids is Don Cotter’s Keith, playing a guy in his late fifties, whose marriage along with his performance, has wilted. Cotter is a master of the mundane, representing perhaps the man that Frank Spencer (if you can remember Michael Crawford’s comic creation) may have grown into. When whilst being asked by Dr Lane about what arouses him sexually, specifically as to what he uses to masturbate over and Cotter replies with the words: “my pyjamas”, he also demonstrates a mastery of comic timing and delivery.

The story’s second struggler is actuary Gareth. Tom Durant-Pritchard’s portrayal of the unfortunate young professional is a masterclass in characterisation. He nails the bumbling awkward sexual inadequacy of a gauche young man with such pinpoint precision that if Durant-Pritchard has any buddies working in the City, they should be looking to themselves to check that this portrayal was not inspired by them!
The one gay patient is Joe with another perceptive performance that is delivered by Paul Harnett. His delivery is probably the smuttiest of the quintet, but his perfunctory descriptions of his struggles as a young gay man also bear a ring of touching credibility.
Nik Drake is Saul, an assertive young man and an interestingly created character, not lacking in self confidence. His eloquence is perhaps the most realistic of all five, with Reed giving Saul very little comedy to hide behind. Drake’s sensitive portrayal of this challenging yet frustrated young man defines some of the play’s more troubling arguments.
The final patient is Gordon played by established actor Neil Stewart. A larger than life, loudly spoken Guardianista, Gordon is the epitome of the clich├ęd man who is large mouthed but nonetheless modestly endowed. His character is the most angry of the bunch and Stewart delivers him well as a toothless tiger, angry with the world yet struggling, if barely able, to accept his own flaws.
As Dr Lane, Helena Blackman has a marathon role. On stage throughout and with a part that is mammoth in length, her elegance and sophistication shine as she struggles to chart a course of compassionately listening to and caring for her patients whilst at the same time maintaining professional boundaries. When the storyline suggests that these boundaries may become blurred, Blackman’s portrayal of a woman caught between desire and duty is masterful. She, along with the entire troupe, has been superbly cast.
Reed’s writing is perceptive and unforgiving and through most of the play he sharply cuts to the bone of social and sexual mores as well as good old fashioned gags, with Graham Hubbard directing his writing well. The second act therapy session however stretches a good idea too far. In the creation of therapist Dominique, Reed gives Jessie May her one character of the evening who through no fault of the actress whatsoever, is the least credible.
Producers Oliver Taheri and Michael James-Cox have delivered a production based upon sound values, with particular credit to Taheri who has performed a gruelling pantomime schedule throughout the weeks leading up to and beyond this show's opening night. Impotent is a play that is above all a delightful, funny and sometimes very poignant look at one aspect of how some of life’s modern challenges are tackled.

Runs until Saturday January 26

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