West End Girls and W*nk Buddies: tales of high-rises and house parties

The topic of social housing seems to be in the theatrical zeitgeist. While the Crucible’s current musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge dramatises the history of Park Hill in Sheffield, Adam Hughes’s new play similarly explores the difficult legacy of the UK’s postwar housing estates. Set across Newcastle – which has witnessed countless demolitions and building projects since the 1950s – West End Girls (★★★☆☆) chronicles three generations of women living in three different estates.

At first, the utopian new blocks of flats are a welcome escape from the slums, but concrete dreams soon crumble. Hughes’s narrative flits restlessly between 1959, 1989 and 2019 – between hope, disintegration and regeneration. In each time, a woman tries to make a home and join a community, revealing, along the way, the best and the worst of life in the city’s high-rise monoliths. People band together and find connections even as pipes leak and windows are boarded up, while refurbished luxury flats encourage suspicion and segregation.

In Jake Smith’s production, performers Amy Allen, Patricia Jones and Leah Mains weave between the miniature housing blocks that litter the stage, surveying the city’s ever-changing landscape from above. Their three characters talk across the years, collectively telling individual stories. While it is an economical way of representing an epic scope, the transitions between drama and commentary could be sharpened. It’s not always clear where and from what time the performers are speaking, nor exactly how they relate to one another. What this mode of storytelling does create, though, is a stirring sense of solidarity.

Epic scope … West End Girls by Adam Hughes. Photograph: Rich Kenworthy

In Live theatre’s Elevator festival of new plays, West End Girls is paired with W*nk Buddies (★★★☆☆), which, in its own way, is also about solidarity. Set during one night at a house party, the play presents an encounter between two university students, each grappling in different ways with contemporary masculinity. Jake feels stifled by a laddish party culture that’s the same every night, while Cameron is fed up with being pigeonholed by gay stereotypes. Forced together, they gradually understand more about each other, themselves and cultural expectations of manhood.

Toxic masculinity is another theme of the moment – and necessarily so, given the harm it continues to cause in the world beyond the auditorium. Jake Jarratt and Cameron Sharp’s semi-autobiographical play, performed by the two writers, adds little new content to this current critique of macho culture. The character of Jake, especially, covers the well-trodden ground of suppressed emotion (real men don’t cry) and strained father-son relations. Though there’s a welcome challenge in Cameron’s desire not to be defined by his sexuality, much of the drama and comedy still comes from the characters’ rather predictable odd-couple dynamic.

But the performances lend W*nk Buddies a charm that elevates its sometimes patchy script, begging forgiveness for the show’s flaws. Jarratt and Sharp make an engaging double act, with that indefinable spark that characterises the best stage collaborations. And a series of brilliantly cheesy dance sequences, choreographed by Alicia Meehan, take the play into new and more promising territory. It’s as the two men fling their bodies around the stage in uninhibited abandon that the show perhaps says most about the confines of masculinity, from which Jake and Cameron temporarily and thrillingly break free.

Both scripts would benefit from further honing, and the storytelling in each could be more precise. But as a festival of new talent, Elevator showcases some promising engagement with topical issues.

Elevator festival is at various venues, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 30 March.

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