Review by Harry Bower
How does a thirty-two-year-old gay, plus-sized primary school teacher find love again when their long-term relationship comes to an end? The fact this is a question which conjures up doubt about their ability to do so proves something is fundamentally broken in our society. Collectively we have come to the lazy acceptance that to be beautiful is to be physically fit, and that to be successful in love is mainly down to the way you look. These are not new revelations, but they are fresh and confronting when explored in Ben Fensome’s BUFF, the solo play which has taken VAULT 2023 by storm.
Nicky, our protagonist, finds himself single and in need of more money thanks to a landlord rent hike (we’re already in the realm of ‘relatable’). By subletting his living room, he finds himself cohabiting with Jamie, a buff Instagram model and gym rat – eye candy but nothing more, to begin with. The story is told in a series of one-sided conversations as Nicky goes about his life, either with Jamie in the flat or the children in his class, or his ex-boyfriend who turns up out of the blue as a cover teacher. This format is not unusual in a one-person play, but in BUFF it is executed flawlessly. The gaps between the dialogue allow plenty of space for the audience to imagine the responses but remarkably this does not impact the incredible sense of comic timing on offer, nor does it become repetitive or boring.
The narrative tracks Nicky attending a series of dates and rediscovering his single-self, using the various dating apps, falling victim to ghosting and other appalling truths about online dating. As the title of the show alludes to, most of these dating stories focus on Nicky’s insecurities relating to his body image and sense of worth. As he continues to grieve about his break-up he projects some of his desperate need for validation onto his new housemate, and after a drunken night in which they hook up, the ‘feelings’ train has well and truly left the station. Loneliness, rejection, a toxic social media landscape and judgemental interactions with strangers are all themes explored in the latter part of the play, as Nicky comes to terms with who he is.
The humour in BUFF is self-deprecating and plentiful. Short of being a laugh a minute, it is a wonderful blend of sensitivity, awkward insecurity and goofy personality. That sensitivity drives the show past its halfway point as we witness an emotional breakdown. It is written and directed in such a raw, honest and compassionate way that it is sometimes difficult to watch.
Speaking of direction, this is a masterclass. Scott Le Crass is responsible for the subtle but never dispensable instruction. It is clear they have a passion for the piece which matches that of its writer and performer. It is perfectly pitched, adding a confident and assured gloss to a story which is anything but. Throughout there are comedic nuances to the direction which add value without detracting from the raw emotion of the piece.
It is unusual to get this far into a solo show review without mentioning the actor. Honestly, this is because I needed more time to research superlatives. David O’Reilly stars as Nicky, in a performance which is surely one of the best you’ll find at VAULT Festival this year. The standing ovation speaks louder than my words ever could, but I’ll give it a go. From the minute the show begins, the audience falls in love with the character. That could be for a multitude of reasons but for me, it’s because O’Reilly has embodied not just a character informed by the words on the page; they have given Nicky a deep and relatable personality which bubbles with anxious energy and a sarcastic (often insulting) delivery. The supreme comic timing cannot be overstated – this is an actor who is obviously very skilled and experienced in the portrayal of funny characters. The ability though to do this at the same time as exposing the very worst in human nature and wearing a sense of uncomfortable insecurity on your sleeve is quite something.
Some audience members on Twitter have described O’Reilly as having delivered a ‘stand-out, warm, often laugh-out-loud’ and ‘unstoppable powerhouse’ of a performance. All of this is true – and for me, the real talent lies in just how much heart is given to Nicky. He is played in the most unguarded and exposed of ways, the actor committing huge emotional investment into a role which must be challenging and confronting. It is a triumph of a performance.
Writing Nicky as a primary school teacher in their day job is an absolute stroke of genius. It allows him to have emotional reactions in his life which contrast against his need to be professional and educational when speaking to his students. When these lines are blurred we see a visceral reaction which offers Nicky the chance to reflect and have a sense of perspective.
That sense of perspective is something which comes through as a takeaway message for those watching. How many of the audience at each show have been guilty of judging people on dating apps because of their weight or appearance? How many audience members have treated someone poorly because of their grieving or poor mental health? These aren’t questions which need an answer; we are all guilty of making snap judgements and treating people worse than we should – and this is equally true in the LGBTQ+ community as it is elsewhere.
BUFF is a thoughtful and confronting play about self-acceptance in the era of toxicity online and impossible standards of beauty. But at its core, it is so much more. There is a consistent thread which runs through it of social anxiety, jealousy, self-respect and a mental health journey. It is written in a sensitive yet hilarious style, directed with compassion, and performed with extraordinary honesty and talent.
It is one of the very best pieces of fringe theatre I have ever seen and I’m only sad I didn’t get to see it sooner.