Review: Bottleneck, Soho Theatre

“The sun peeking its head over the tower block like a paedo”

Fast approaching his 15th birthday, Greg is obsessed with football – every aspect of his life in the Boot Estate in Liverpool revolves around the beautiful game and it informs his every action. And in Luke Barnes’ one-man play Bottleneck set in the late 1980s, we find a portrait not just of adolescence in progress as we lead up to the tumultuous events of his birthday, but also of working class life in a city in decline. It is heartfelt and lively, fearlessly funny and almost unbearably moving.

Barnes is clearly a gifted playwright, not just in the careful unwinding of his narrative but also in the richness of his text which deepens and layers his writing. Though Greg is the epitome of teenage rebelliousness and is straining for a greater independence, details abound that remind us he is still in many ways just a boy – his mittens, his naïveté about most everything about girls, the joy of being on his BMX. And Barnes also has a way of making vivid images linger in the mind, whether the comical obsession with much-vaunted moustaches or the desolation of impressions of wire fences and fingernails.

Under Steven Atkinson ‘s careful direction, James Cooney delivers an exceptionally compelling performance. His barely controlled teenage energy as Greg bounces off the walls of the tiny studio but though it is boisterous, it is never threatening – more often we’re actually laughing with him with his habit of connecting every insult to a footballer (Cooney displays some magnificent comic timing) and in his unswerving loyalty to best friend Tom and determination to always do the right thing in the end, it is clear Greg’s not a bad lad at all.

Cooney also revels in breaking out of Greg to take on the many supporting roles too, like his father, a girl from school, the aforementioned Tom, and all are delivered with a sure but deft touch that ensures the energy level of Bottleneck never dips. The only potential criticism would be around the downbeat final scene which flashes forward and makes a little too explicit what has previously been hinted at with murmurings of sexual abuse and industrial decline, that the grimness of life on estates such as these can be inescapable, no matter where one ends up. This bleakness feels a bitter note to end on, but there’s no mistaking the quality of Bottleneck from the provocative writing to the inventive direction to the genuinely superb acting.    

Running time: 1 hour (without interval)
Booking until 9th March, then makes a short tour of the UK to Oxford, Watford, Colchester, Folkestone, Canterbury and Norwich

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