Chris Oldham, The Reviews Hub
Despite being set to a soundtrack featuring artists like The Specials and Desmond Decker, Skin Deep is anything but a cheery piece of 80s nostalgia.
Returning to Exeter in 1980, after three years away in London, it’s clear that skinhead Jem (Midge Mullin) has outgrown the rolling hills and quaint streets that welcome him back. With his girlfriend Pearl (Rosie Mullin) in tow, he reconnects with his childhood best friend Alex (Nathan Simpson). But while Alex and Pearl bond, happy to find out more about each other’s worlds, it becomes obvious that Jem’s world has shrunk considerably, with no room for “outsiders” in the all-white Britain he’s come to believe in. And when Alex’s awkward, impressionable little brother Biro (Mike Gilpin) begins emulating Jem’s behaviour, relationships between them all begin to unravel.
Told mainly in monologues from the different characters’ perspectives while the action happens around them, the audience is offered glimpses into the moments that matter – a political debate around the pool table, the four characters attending a local football match. It’s in these moments that Skin Deep manages to capture issues of race, sexuality, disillusionment and desperation with a surprisingly light hand.
Despite his lack of patience with his brother, Alex stands out as the voice of reason – uncomplicated, open-minded, with a love of sharp clothes and Two Tone music. While Pearl is a bridge across changing worlds, lamenting what being a skin girl used to be about before prejudice began to muddy the waters. As Jem however, Mullin is the most imposing presence, full of simmering rage, mob mentality and nervous energy.
One of most effective elements of the piece is that nothing seems dated – not the clothes, not the music, and sadly, in many ways, not the attitudes. There’s also the distinct impression that Substance and Shadow Theatre Group is not out to shock, rather to offer a reminder of just how shattering an effect fear and ignorance can have on the world.