Gifted Playwrights throughout the ages have attempted to write plays that authentically reflect the personal regrets and struggles of everyday human existence. Writer Mick Cooper has succeeded in this attempt and then some with his powerful and award winning play Stuff. The plot of Stuff centers around a married couple Jess and Toby, who are unable to have children. During an evening in, their terminally ill friend Xavier offers to give them his frozen sperm so that Jess would have a chance of becoming pregnant. The rest of the play then centers around the significant issues that this unusual offer would entail.
Despite the frequent allusions to far away travel, all the quiet yet pointed action takes place in the modest living room of Jess and Toby. Jess frets over the shagpile rug and is teased for her grown up attitude. Beers are shared and argued over and a pizza burns in the oven, sending alarm bells ringing. The homeliness of the setting gives the play a sense of timelessness. Each character is faced with a significant dilemma yet within the living room remains a point outside of time where a person can be seventeen years old again in fancy dress whilst simultaneously having a serious adult conversation. This makes the intrusive nature of the trio’s real world problems all the more painful.
The show takes place in real time which gives the audience the same time to process and mull over the various themes at the same speed as the characters, and also keeps the audience more engrossed and invested within the little world centred around a sofa. The friendship between the three characters feels real and genuine. The complex yet all too relatable dynamics between the three are explored through the everyday mediums of drinking games and amiable bickering over coffee table snacks. You can find yourself happily lost in their reminiscences, their in jokes and their mutual teasing. The language and gestures used flawlessly by the cast depict the semi claustrophobic closeness that marks true, long term friendships. The tensions and tragedies that bubble just below the surface are made all the more heartbreakingly human by the witty back and forth chatter of Xavier, Jess and Toby.
The character of Xavier is exuberant, boisterous and eccentric. Xavier is a brilliant creation in that he isn’t defined by his cancer in the patronizing way that so many fictional cancer sufferers are. Commendably, he is not depicted as a victim and neither is he caricatured as an angel. He is instead shown to have a frustratingly limited degree of agency that he uses to help his two close friends . Karl Greenwood channels the hyper hilarity and outrageousness of Xavier so completely and with such obvious fondness that I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing him.
Peter Ash gives a sincere, compelling and often humorous performance as ex military man Toby whose perceived inadequacies and fertility issues seem to continuously simmer just below his skin. Sensible, list making Jess is played with real warmth by Eve Burley. Jess is a sweet, likeable character and Burley portrays her longing for motherhood with an ache that is clearly palpable. The anguish of Toby and Jess’s fertility struggles will strike a chord with many couples in the same situation. The Stuff cast are formidably talented, with the ability to portray many different feelings at once; with subtlety and understanding. Each actor can tell a story within a knowing look or a heated moment of silence.
Despite the hard hitting issues at its core, this play is very entertaining and is at times laugh out loud funny. Humour is after all the greatest human defense mechanism against the unavoidable knowledge of mortality. Jokes are made when faced with the endings of life just as the prospect of a newborn baby can be discussed in the same breath as impending death. Stuff is a profoundly intelligent, moving and multilayered meditation on the strangeness, and brevity, of life. It is an exploration of the masks and personas that we all wear in order to hide our individual frustrations and fears. The way in which we structure our lives in order to feel some degree of invincibility. I left the theatre emotional, yet strangely uplifted. I cannot recommend it enough for those who love down to earth, on point drama. This is quite simply a thoughtful, perfect play that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.