Review: The Poof Downstairs, BAC Burst Festival
Published on Culture Wars, 29.05.2009
John Haynes is apologising. Sadly, thanks to family commitments, his fellow performer Charles N.I. Middleton has had to pull out. As has Patrizia Paolini, who, after performing The Poof Downstairs the night before, has decided that she no longer wants to be associated with it. Accordingly, tonight Haynes’ autobiographical three-hander will be performed by Haynes alone.
Or rather, the three-hander won’t be performed at all. It soon becomes apparent that Haynes’ introductory preamble has taken over. There is so much to be apologised for, so much that needs explaining in advance that he never actually gets round to his play. In effect, Haynes is apologising for theatre – even art as a whole – and, more specifically, for its failure to reflect a recognizable reality with any truth. Life, he demonstrates, is not neatly packagable into an hour-long studio-based piece or any other tidy, traditional medium.
Instead, Haynes embarks on a winding narrative that folds into itself with assorted titbits and distractions. His speech becomes a whirlpool of anyways that swirls around an unreachable singularity: his own multifaceted identity. Thus, we hear about his schooldays with Charles ‘Nigger’ Middleton and their first reunion thirty-five years later; we see his parents sitting around the dinner table, father coughing and mother nattering; we hear his neighbours upstairs and their sarcastically coined ‘little darlings’ labelling Haynes “the poof downstairs”; we meet Frank, a camp older friend bearing reduced items from Sainsbury’s. Somehow, through all of this, we get a picture of Haynes himself. Perhaps we even get several pictures of several Haynes’s.
In many ways, it’s the sort of forced meta-theatrical conceit from which, usually, I’d run screaming. However, Haynes manages his jumbled assortment of material with such careful attention that, in spite of its weaving structural complexities, everything settles into place. His handling of other characters, boiled down into stock caricatures of catchphrases and physical tics, is exquisite; both hilariously observed and executed. As the flotsam populace of his life appear onstage, Haynes’ world begins to seem a world of Haynes’s, not dissimilar to the poster for Being John Malkovitch. Nor is that prospect as irritating as it might sound, thanks to Haynes’ likable presence, camp scorn and dry humour.
The Poof Downstairs, as lecture presented rather than play unwritten, makes for an entertaining hour. However, though Haynes makes his point skilfully through form, one is left feeling its content charming but inconsequential. Other than the simple fact that it is his, there seems little reason for Haynes’s identity to be the specific focus as opposed to any other identity. Admittedly, he’s working with what he’s got, but the result is that there is little by way of payoff. Content almost enables medium rather than vice versa or a more balanced relationship of mutual necessity. Still, The Poof Downstairs sees Haynes on strong form.
Photograph: John Haynes