Though Boxless Theatre’s Hedgehog is a well-staged and frequently amusing take on teenage growing pains, it doesn’t quite deliver on its early promise.
We’re not short, in English, of flora and fauna which can describe a person’s character (shrinking violets, cheeky monkeys, etc) – but common parlance seems to have overlooked the common hedgehog. Our 17 year-old protagonist Manda is, as the title of Boxless Theatre’s latest play suggests, something of a prickly customer. Not requiring much provocation to flare her spines defensively, she bristles against the authority of schoolteachers and parents alike. It’s only when the demands of adolescence take her over the edge that her soft underbelly is revealed and she’s forced to accept that she’s not quite as sure of herself as she thought.
Manda’s journey, as might be expected with a teenager, starts in her bedroom. Her early monologues are akin to those of a stand-up comic, bombarding the audience with a stream of observations and rhetorical questions that draw attention to the idiosyncrasies of her curling tongs, her hangovers and her strained home life. Later we witness her drop out of school, find a job and hit the local pubs and clubs. The use of an OHP projector (it’s the 90s) helps to signal, without ever feeling forced, the changes in scene and time. Simple costume changes (a flat cap here, a cardigan there) more than adequately convey changes of character and the interactive movement of Manda and ‘Them’ (her supporting duo playing a variety of characters) is choreographed and executed brilliantly, helping the narrative to flow organically and seamlessly in spite of the supposed limitation of only having three actors in the cast.
It’s only when Manda’s interactions with the audience become more self-absorbed and self-effacing that the verve and immediacy of the early production begins to wane. Admittedly, it’s somewhat challenging to dramatise what is a very personal, introspective phenomenon (namely a character’s descent into depression) but the Manda who begins to mentally disintegrate on a night out and subsequently endures a lengthy period of despondency does not elicit as much sympathy as the earlier Manda whom we see responding to actual circumstances. Instead of exhibiting her latent anger through an altercation with an overbearing mother in the vets or her silent sadness as she observes her father’s heart breaking, when he catches his wife shamelessly flirting with a trader at a boot fair, the audience have to endure a more superficially depressed Manda; reduced to more hackneyed tropes of teenage anxiety and self-loathing. The opportunity for a more uniquely depressed Manda, whose state of mental health is justified by both her immediate and prevailing history, is lost.
The majority of Hedgehog, which runs for around seventy minutes without interruption, is a maelstrom of a monologue. Zoe Grain, who plays Manda, should take a well-earned holiday when the run at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre comes to an end. Grain not only voices every single one of Manda’s beating thoughts, but also voices a number of other characters and phenomena. Delivering over 90% of the script at breakneck speed, whilst dipping in and out of a range of personas requires real skill and energy and Grain’s quality performance underpins the whole play. She is well supported by Emily Costello and Lucy Annable, delightfully at ease as, between them, Manda’s mother, her best friend Claire and a range of other characters. Watch out for Costello’s uncanny portrayal of the young boy and Annable’s rendering of ‘The Darts.’ There are certainly plenty of laughs to be had in Hedgehog, as well as profound insights and moving moments; they just come at the price of a few loose ends and forced lines.