Stuart Slade’s Cans, currently playing at Theatre 503, is both intriguing in its theme and tender in its approach. It focuses on a subject matter that, in its details relates to recent collective preoccupations (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers), but in its core is old and universal and inexhaustible: Do we ever know the people we love? And how do you renegotiate love in the context of grief and the absence of the other person?
It’s also framed in the lovely and rich relationship between uncle and niece, and we don’t have enough of those in theatre (Uncle Vanya alone can’t carry it and Claudius will never win Uncle of the Month). Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces is special fertile ground, free, unpredictable and a little bit naughty, full of trust but devoid of unnecessary tension.
Stuart Slade and director Dan Pick take these ingredients, and work up something robust and tender: they delicately construct revelations throughout the play, at the same time as they keep it true and real, which in this case means messy and a bit dark and inappropriately funny. The relationship is truthful and can withstand all contradictions in its core: jokes that bomb and ones that don’t, one-liners, stumblings and falls, difficult confessions and vulnerable moments. The language is lithe and impressively effortless: it’s not often you get the adjective “Auschwitz-y” in a play, furthermore it’s not often that this would feel right.
Graham O’Mara has a looney toons face, which – combined with absolute commitment to the moment – shows Len for the expansive warm genuine person that he is, clown and confessor and high priest of mischief. Jennifer Clement as Jen moves in the opposite direction, her reactions existing in the immobility of grief and a contained kind of rage. It’s interesting and fitting these two approaches work so well together and the relationship blossoms in superficial tension and profound rapport.
The set is vibrant in its everyday detail, I particularly loved the discolouration left on the wall when pictures were taken down.
The only criticism I have of the play is it somewhat loses its way towards the end. Some of it is down to the subject matter. There are no easy answers to the questions raised, therefore the characters end up spinning on the spot, unable to move on. But somehow this seeps into the narrative and as a result the play loses some of its tautness towards the end. No matter, it’s a play that knows a serious subject, but also knows the unbearable lightness of being.
The Hamlet Challenge: Jen, as she looks at a copy of Hamlet: “Lucky fucker. At least he got to see his dad again after he died”.