Review by Harry Bower
Young Jimbo speaks with a strong West Country accent and is bullied at school for, amongst other things, his presumed sexuality. Standing on a bare stage with a single atmospheric hanging lightbulb, surrounded by haze, dressed in a dirty t-shirt, Jimbo is alone. Those feelings of isolation collide with loss, grief, sexual identity and homophobia, in Declan, a forty-five-minute ghostly exploration of self and mental health.
Jimbo is growing up in a small town. At his nan’s birthday party he meets Declan, and the pair hit it off, dancing together until Jimbo’s dad hits out at him for embarrassing the family. Thus begins a year of intense friendship between Jimbo and Declan, the pair inseparable until, one day, Declan disappears. Faced with a broken home and the abandonment of his best friend, what follows is a series of increasingly desperate door-to-door interviews with neighbours and a frantic search around the town to find his best friend. The piece is erratic in its storytelling style, jumping between different timelines and characters, that energy thankfully matched by writer-performer Alistair Hall. In many ways this is a feature of the tale, the audience transfixed by the tense nature of one scene only to be distracted by the next, as if mirroring the panicked confusion in young Jimbo’s mind. Tense is a word which perfectly describes the piece – at times I found myself holding my breath and shifting in my seat in anticipation of what tragedy would reveal itself next.
Queer identity and experiencing your own sexual awakening in a hostile environment is a big part of the piece, and one of the only autobiographical parts of the story, according to its writer. To what extent the vampire-esque experience with a stranger in which Jimbo has blood sucked from his bum, is autobiographical, is less clear. Such stories serve to remind the audience of Jimbo’s immaturity but also blur the lines of genre in the piece. Is this a modern-day ghost story? Or a fantasy? A foreshadowing grounded tale of mental health and suicide, or a fictional fable fractured from reality? It's that lack of cohesiveness which acts as simultaneously its biggest strength and weakness. Delcan seems to exist in a halfway house between reality and imagination. While allowing the audience to make their own interpretations, the challenge in this style is that it can be difficult to focus throughout, particularly when some threads (the King Edward II obsession) don’t fully integrate.
The writing is mostly brilliant, abusing the senses of the audience evoking scents and tastes as entire environments come to life on the bare stage, from a school classroom to the canal. It’s also surprisingly funny, the right dash of humour thrown in at each moment of despair or tragedy, perfectly pitched to allow the audience a moment of relaxation before the tension ramps up again. Hall has crafted a piece which feels alive, its themes bubbling underneath the skin of its characters, trying to find a way to burst out. In many ways Declan feels like a physical manifestation of a therapy session, and in many other ways it feels uncomfortable to be sat watching a character be so helplessly vulnerable. It is thought-provoking and reflective in its style, and if it didn’t quite hold my attention for the full run time that is purely down to its intensity. Relentlessly bleak, dark, thoughtful; all words I would use to describe the show. There is a strange and almost out of place sense of hope you get toward the end, which feels shoe-horned into an otherwise hopeless story.
Alistair Hall’s performance is exceptional. Here is a performer throwing everything they’ve got at a role which must be hard to balance out. The humour is mostly complimentary but not key to the narrative, and so this character feeling lost and stuck, or left behind, is one which requires careful consideration from its actor. Hall handles Jimbo with all the sensitivity and vulnerability required but never makes the audience feel uncomfortable or as though we are watching something out of control. His commitment to the character is unwavering.
Childhood trauma revisited in this ghostly tale is undeniably captivating. The fate of best friend Declan may be mildly ambiguous, but the overall messages of the piece are not. Well timed after the isolation we all experienced in the pandemic, at a time in which the world urgently needs more queer voices and representation, Declan is a fantastic piece of drama worth seeing. With a bit of tweaking it could become an unmissable hour of thought-provoking theatre.
Declan plays at Edinburgh Fringe Festival between 15-27 August 2023. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk/events/event/declan
Photos by Olivia Spencer