Skin Deep

“Incendiary talent at Ignite Festival”
Avril Silk, Remote Goat


Ska tastic - Matt Austin Images
When I worked in an adolescent psychiatric unit in the eighties, I met all manner of disturbed and disturbing people, often marching under the colours of their chosen subculture. One boy tested my liberal wish to celebrate diversity to the limit. His uncompromising Skinhead persona troubled my faded Flower Child considerably. A key part of our work was to locate the pain behind the behaviour but his appearance was a formidable barrier. It is a cliche, but it was a joy to discover the kind-hearted future citizen behind the bombast. I remembered him as I watched Substance and Shadow Theatre’s ‘Skin Deep’ at Exeter’s Bike Shed.

Each character in Midge and Rosie Mullin’s pin-sharp, intelligently observed play wanted to belong, and the universal staples of distinctive clothing and music provided potent markers to other like-minded people – on the surface at least. To young people in search of identity there is comfort and strength in uniting with others, but comfort and strength give way to tribalism and violence if, as with Nathan Simpson’s Alex, it’s all about the music and the threads, but with Midge Mullin’s Jem it’s a hook for storing profound anger, fear of homosexuality and inadequacy. Rosie Mullin, as Pearl, eloquently showed that becoming a Skin Girl was wonderful right up to the point it turned ugly.

Pearl and Jem’s journey from slick London to hick Exeter, Jem and Alex’s hometown, is as much running from as going to, with deep undercurrents connecting and dividing apparent friends and lovers. Alex’s kid brother Biro, (Mike Gilpin) has grown into an impressionable adolescent, ripe for the hero-worship that can save one man’s life and wreck another’s. In Gran’s garden shed, where Jem and Pearl are staying, the explosive mixture of emotions and history is broiling and bubbling to melting point. Jill Coley’s tough, unsentimental Nan has seen it all before, and having survived the Luftwaffe she is not scared of a gaggle of Skinheads, but Jem’s final words might give her pause to rethink her insouciance.

This is powerful, unsettling stuff, as relevant today as it was in the 1980s, performed by a strong, confident cast who do full justice to excellent, edgy writing with excellent, edgy performances. There’s not a wasted word, just profound depth and challenge, without compromise, inviting us to work out what we believe about ourselves and others and how to live in a world of contradictions and confusion.

The evocative sound track reminded me just how pivotal and formative music is in our lives – our choices shining like beacons to attract others and including, like light-houses, a warning about territory.

Afterwards, I saw flags of St. George and flowers on the Exeter war memorial; tributes to the memory of murdered Lee Rigby. The same ingredients were there as in ‘Skin Deep’; the wish to share and express a common humanity and loss and the desire to blame and destroy, thus ensuring further loss. So we lurch on, personally and nationally, looking for allies, creating enemies.

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