Skin Deep by Ben Beeson

Skin Deep – a review

It’s nearly a week now since I saw this play. I’ve had time to reflect and recall other plays I’ve seen, and I still stand by my first reaction… Skin Deep is definitely the best piece of home-grown amateur theatre I’ve watched. And I’ve seen some pretty good stuff over the years!

Set in Exeter in 1980, towards the end of the 2 Tone era, Skin Deep tells the story of four young people closely bound by friendship, relationship and family ties, yet very differently influenced by the youth cultures of the time. As a critical exploration of the tribalism of, and tensions within subcultures, it is as sharp as a cut-throat razor, yet still warm-hearted and understanding.

Two skinheads, boyfriend and girlfriend and seemingly of the same tribe, gradually reveal themselves to be radically different. The British skinhead movement at the time was slowly and often messily polarising, with the Jamaican “rude boy” influenced “traditional skins” at one extreme and the British Movement- and National Front- influenced “white power skins” at the other. Jem and Pearl slowly and painfully realise that they are heading towards opposite sides of the schism.

A white rude boy is initially disdainful of all contemporary skinheads. Gradually he learns that the skins’ original roots, with their love of Jamaican music and culture, have not been totally subsumed by neo-Nazism. This revelation is cruelly juxtaposed with another – Alex had always loathed the white power element in principal, but now he comes face to face with the true ugliness of violent, vacuous race hatred.

Despite their differences, these three characters have a common root in the dim and distant past, and initially unite in their refusal to accept the geeky, straggly-haired metal-head ways of Alex’s little brother, Biro.

Poor, socially inept Biro. He’s the laughing stock, the butt of the jokes, but our laughter is tinged with guilt: He’s the kid at school who we always secretly wanted to stand up for, but never quite found the balls to step that far out of the crowd, and risk getting the same treatment from our peers. Mike Gilpin plays Biro – and plays on our mixed feelings – brilliantly, and never with a nod to the gallery.

Four actors, four wooden chairs. As far as set goes, that’s yer lot. The minimalism is never pretentious, just functional. When those four wooden chairs form a pool table, or the upstairs of a double-decker bus, we believe it, and the lack of complicated scene changes means the pace never needs to slow.

But… four actors? The programme lists five! Many times I found myself wondering “will we ever meet the mysterious Nan? Does she even exist? Is she a red herring? An invention?” I won’t give the game away, save to say that the closing scene, the last of many great plot twists, is a deft, funny and poignant master-stroke. It is also a chance to step back and take a fresh angle on the previous shenanigans.

What is left to say? Well, loads. But this is becoming a long review about a short play. I cannot believe how much Substance and Shadow Theatre managed to pack into an hour long performance. I’ll just say two more things:

The humour really makes this play work. I’d guess, as they performed Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” last year, that they may have taken a leaf out of his book: “comedy of menace” is really at work here, to great effect. And the “laugh out loud” jokes – short, punchy and hilarious, they arrive when least expected and most needed. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at a joke about a petrol bomb before.

And that stage punch – I don’t recall seeing better. It even sounded like a real punch, rather than a luvvie slapping their thigh. I’d like to know how they did that!

This is professional quality amateur theatre in the truest sense. Amateur companies often contain great actors who can put the story across brilliantly, but seldom achieve this kind of pace and tension. To reach a point where the audience never feel that they are waiting for something to happen takes extra hours of rehearsing, which is why it’s so rarely seen outside of the professional world.

Professional quality, yes, but as rootsy and raw as you like. If you love theatre you will love Skin Deep. If you hate theatre, you will probably still love Skin Deep. If you’ve never seen theatre, this is a great place to start. Go and see it!

Ben Beeson, 14th June 2013