The title of Jack Thorne’s deceptively simple one-man play of 2007 – the most recent revival of which has transferred to London following a critically acclaimed run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival – is a neat bit of misdirection. We never meet the eponymous Stacy; we only encounter her through the recollections of her friend, Rob. And as his rambling account of his life takes a dark turn, we understand with chilling clarity that it is what she represents as a woman, rather than who she is, that really matters to him.
Twenty-something Rob is a call-centre employee with a black-and-white view of the world who has never recovered from outgrowing his childhood status as the ‘golden boy’ of his family. As his stream of consciousness monologue digresses left, right and centre, we learn that he even managed to steal the show from his sister at her funeral. But when we meet him, his life has become a mundane disappointment. Most recently, some cringingly bad sex with Stacy, his best friend, has left him embarrassed and humiliated. But when he goes to talk to her about it, he encounters Shona, her flatmate, instead. And something terrible happens.
To begin with, the frequency with which Rob wanders off track to delve into episodes from his childhood or to ponder the strange minutiae of daily life is frustrating, like trying to reach your destination on a road filled with potholes. It isn’t until he reveals what he did to Shona in Stacy’s empty bedroom that we realise how clever the meandering route has been. Thorne’s writing rings with authenticity; part narrative and part confessional, it is doubly effective as a result.
With each self-interruption, leftfield rumination or excitable run of words, we are encouraged to warm to Rob – and we do. He thinks and speaks like a real person. His eccentricities are (at least to begin with) endearing and everything from his clumsy fumbling with Stacy to his views on dodgy wallpaper choices and shifty landlords strike a chord that is both familiar and funny. Thorne makes an everyman of him and we respond accordingly. So what are we to do when we learn that he is also a rapist?
The play’s structure doesn’t spare us the question, dropping this information into our laps halfway through instead of at the end. And although the tone darkens, Rob occasionally makes the kind of remark that we might have laughed at before. Is it still acceptable to do so? His digressions now sound like special pleading; as if by reassuring himself that he is like everyone else he will be able to minimise the seriousness of his actions. By exploiting the complicity between audience and stage, Thorne reminds us in an unsettling way that people who do bad things don’t live in a comfortingly different world. It is a question of extent, not capability.
Rob’s struggle to reconcile how he wants to be seen with what he has done is played out in concert with the images that flash up on the projector screen behind him. Initially an amusing way of fleshing out his life (Mum, Dad and Strictly Come Dancing pop up in quick succession), this slideshow becomes an increasingly disquieting tour of his head, building a picture of a socially inexperienced man whose knowledge of sex and women comes from porn and lads mags. A ‘glitch’ that briefly turns a dog’s bloodied corpse into a backdrop for his account of the rape captures his feelings of guilt but also a destructive undertow of frustration, inadequacy and his need to assert himself.
Nic McQuillan makes for an utterly believable Rob. Locking eyes with us and speaking with a catch in his throat, he anchors the play in our world with a nervy, jumpy performance that makes a virtue of the Pleasance’s small black box space and blurs the distinction between stage and audience. You feel as though he could have wandered in off the street, which is exactly the point. And when he turns to stare pleadingly at Rob’s idealised self-image on the screen, loveably hapless with a sheepish expression, he makes his character’s desperate desire to be that man, and nothing else, tangible.
Nik Partridge’s and Georgina Ower’s well-paced production never loses our interest, teasing out the spiky humour of Thorne’s writing while never backpedalling on the messy moral complexity at its heart. While it has its flaws – including, crucially, not giving us a strong enough sense of why the rape happens when it does – don’t be surprised if the questions it asks about the grey areas of our lives burrow under your skin and accompany you home.