Review: Bastard

Carina Harford 16 January 2019

★★★★★

Billie Collins’ new play Bastard is nothing short of totally enchanting. Beautifully directed by Caroline Yu and starring Stanley Thomas in a remarkable performance, the one-man show quite literally illustrates the protagonist’s story by drawing it on the walls, laying out for the audience an emotional diagram of a young man’s past, and using this scaffolding to inform his present and future.

The stage is bare when we first meet Charlie Bewley, who announces his plan to ‘talk for ninety minutes,’ before diving into the beginning of his story: him, on the train home from Glasgow University with a hangover. Charlie needs to shit, but is horrified by the prospect of train bathrooms in a slightly Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time sort of way, and during this scatological dilemma he receives a phone call from an unknown number: his father is getting out of prison. But his father isn’t in prison, they’ve got the wrong number, he insists, between futile attempts to flush the loo. But they have the right number, and Charlie has a new dilemma.

This play is made of paper – papered walls, stacks of letters, post-it notes, paper money, envelopes, birth certificates. Charlie uses a marker pen to illustrate the characters and settings of the drama. He fills the blank walls with more and more information: he maps his route home (past the multiple Cafe Neros), sketches an outline of his ‘dad’ (later dads, plural), and mockingly imitates the mid-life-crisis-orange-polka-dot mural his parents have painted in their hallway. He makes a post-it note timeline of his and his mother’s lives; he draws what his mother draws: cubes attached to other cubes, ‘cross-hatched’ in the corners, connecting a series of units. These are the units that grow into both life and death: his dad’s cancer grows, multiplying like the cubes; and Charlie’s family grows, adding units in surprising places.

Charlie, though twenty-one, draws crude, childish pictures. This device could have felt blunt, but instead felt remarkably apt – we all revert to some form of childishness in response to our parents. Charlie’s drawing of Stephen Bewley, the man who raised him, is one of touching innocence: a gingerbread-man shape, with added wrinkles, eye bags, a big smile and an added lump labeled ‘cancer’, which he then crosses out, because Stephen ‘beat’ prostate cancer once before. At one point he even presses his body into the cut-out shape, trying to push himself into Stephen’s mould. Later on, perpendicular to this drawing of Stephen, emerges the drawing of Mark, Charlie’s biological father. This drawing is Charlie’s height – he measures himself as an estimate – and has no facial features. Charlie ricochets between these father figures and opposing points of information, trying to ascertain what this paper trail of his life means. His markers of identity are divorced of their original meaning, leaving Charlie to puzzle out the difference between a ‘dad’ and a ‘father.’

Thomas is outstanding in this role, walking the line between awkward and endearing with comic flair, and displaying huge depth of emotion which had much of the audience in tears, and led to a standing ovation. He did this while also convincingly playing the parts of all the other characters with tenderness and a just touch of ironic distance. Bastard is simple writing in the best of ways, probing at family and identity with a precision and elegance that is beyond the category of ‘student writing’ and into the astonishing category of ‘I was lucky to be there, I wonder where she’s going next.’