“What have you got, a death wish?”
The first thing to strike you as you enter the Gate for Gruesome Playground Injuries is Lily Arnold’s design. A jagged streak of clinical white bisects the theatre, Mariah Gale and Felix Scott already sit onstage, the traverse staging exposes half of the audience in this already intimate space. Rajiv Joseph’s intimately bruising two-hander initially sustains the premise that is promised by the visual ingenuity and its intriguing concept, but the writing runs out of steam before its 80 minutes are over and so ultimately proves a bit of a frustrating watch.
Kayleen and Doug first meet aged 8 in the nurse’s room of their school – she’s got a sore tummy and he rode his bicycle off the roof of the school and a perverse attraction with each other’s sickness soon grows between the pair. We then trace their (not-)relationship through the next 30 years, jumping back and forth through time as they are repeatedly drawn together at key moments in their lives despite having drifted far apart in the intervening periods. Their encounters are almost always based around a new injury suffered by one but as Doug’s daredevil stunts continue with a horrific disregard for his own safety and Kayleen’s internal demons prevent her own happiness, it is clear that this is a vicious cycle of pain in which they are trapped.
Justin Audibert directs the story with something of an indie-film aesthetic. The actors – Mariah Gale and Felix Scott – remain onstage throughout and so go through their multiple costume changes and painting-on of injuries in full view, to the tune of Isobel Waller-Bridge’s winsome music. It’s an effective choice at first but these extended scene changes begin to test the patience as it becomes apparent that Joseph’s writing suffers from excessively playing its one note, no matter the age of his characters. Instead of delving into psychological depth, he remains at a surface level which ends up perilously close to becoming twee.
There’s just too little to Kayleen and Doug to really draw us into their world and convince us of the strength of their relationship, having them be constantly drawn to one another over such a long period of time is a tough sell even without the lack of any real empathetic connection between them. There’s little sense of the ties that bind, to really convince that their sporadic visits to each other would have continued even with the gaps of several years between them.
And on a similar note, the final scene felt like a step too far, stretching the concept once again too thinly and for little real impact, given the power of the penultimate scene. As this moment occurred the day before one of the earlier scenes, it provided a pleasing circularity, illuminating a particular previous action and capturing perfectly both the depth and fragility of the emotion between the pair.
That we care for them as much as we do is testament to the not inconsiderable skills of Mariah Gale and Felix Scott, who keep this world spinning throughout, no matter how unlikely it may seem. Gale has a disturbingly convincing level of brittleness as a woman seemingly always on the brink and Scott brims with rambunctious goofiness as the eternal fratboy, inexplicably compelled to danger. Though mostly undeveloped, there are kernels of intriguing thought in here which always keep the interest engaged and with this level of quality acting and creative work, it is certainly never dull. But it is hard to shake the feeling that this is a play not quite worthy of the production it has been granted here.