Jade Byrne gives us glasses that will blur our vision. She wants us to understand what it feels like to experience a diabetic hypo. Hugh Hughes is passing around a notebook. He wants feedback on his show about his father. Nick Cassenbaum is getting us to do just about everything: sing, holler and heckle. He wants us to fall back in love with his all-time hero, the impressionist and entertainer Michael Barrymore.
All three of their shows – part of Ipswich’s Pulse festival – ask the audience to share in real-life childhood experiences and reflect on innocence lost, fractured relationships, and the inspiring figures that carry us into adulthood.
The title of Byrne’s show, Pricks (★★★☆☆), refers to her constant need to check her blood sugar level with a pinprick to the finger in order to manage her type 1 diabetes. Byrne did her first finger-prick test aged four, convinced she was going to die of “die-of-betes”. These days her insulin levels are regulated with the help of an app on her phone, but it’s a condition that demands constant attention, even if all Byrne wants to do sometimes is forget.
Pricks is a little insular in places – more therapy than theatre – but it’s also honest, informative and lit up by the deep affection that Byrne feels for her family, her protectors and her champions. We hear about her sister’s patience and good humour, her mother’s unwavering support, and her dad’s mad dash to the hospital as his “baby” experiences her first hypo – car abandoned in front of the hospital, keys still in the ignition and doors left wide open.
Fathers haunt Hoipoilloi’s new show The Ladder (★★☆☆☆), too, although this time it’s their absence that makes an impact. Shôn Dale-Jones’s alter ego, an emerging artist called Hugh Hughes, returns to the stage with a story about his dad and the rippling sense of loss that runs through his family. The show starts at the top of a ladder, where Hughes’s father suffers a heart attack. It ends at the bottom, after dad’s life has flashed before his eyes. Dale-Jones is a natural comic and his deadpan delivery and offbeat clowning with dad (Julian Spooner) can be very funny. But there’s little shape or purpose to The Ladder, as we grind through oblique images and moments from his life.
Michael Barrymore may not seem an obvious father figure but for Nick Cassenbaum, growing up during Barrymore’s heyday in the 90s, this stratospherically popular TV star was everything. My Kind of Michael (★★★★☆) is Cassenbaum’s homage to Barrymore’s brand of entertainment in his heyday – before the 2001 death of Stuart Lubbock in his swimming pool.
It is a hopeful, funny and palpably affectionate show. With the help of his pop-eyed pianist, Andy Kelly, Cassenbaum rattles through Barrymore’s greatest hits and barmiest impressions. Buoyed by Cassenbaum’s natural charisma and enthusiasm, the audience cheer wildly and, with amazingly little cynicism, join in with Cassenbaum’s on-stage clowning. That cloying sense of suspicion and seediness that has set in around Britain’s entertainment industry after the revelations about Jimmy Savile and others, momentarily seeps away. Just for a moment, we’re young again.