Review by Sam Waite
Content Warning: Paper Cut, while not graphic, does contain descriptions of severe and bloody injury, allusions to suicide, and discussions of genital trauma.
A phrase familiar to most, “Don't ask, don't tell” effectively summed up military attitudes towards homosexuality – fellow soldiers were warned against discrimination and harassment towards closeted recruits, but anyone openly non-heterosexual would not be permitted. In Paper Cut, currently making its UK debut at the Park Theatre, Andrew Rosendorf grapples with the idea of being willing to risk everything to fight for a country in a global level while waging an internal war against it on a personal level.
Kyle, the protagonist, opens the play scrolling through posts on social media. Osama Bin Laden has been killed, and patriotic Americans are sharing their delight and relief, which two try to reach out to Kyle. Chuck, a fellow soldier, wants to reconnect following their closeness in the field, whereas high school classmate Harry is unsubtly trying to make a move in his longtime crush. Having lost both legs to an IED, Kyle would rather block all those who might connect with him out, a desire quashed by his twin brother's insistence that he come to stay with him.
Joe Bolland brings an immediate sense of neurotic energy to Jack, the less traditionally masculine brother who is riddled with anxiety and guilt for shutting Kyle out years before. Real affection and fraternal devotion peppers their scenes together, owing largely to Bolland’s ability to balance the guilt and resentment his character has been carrying in equal measure. The chemistry between him and Callum Mardy is that of real brothers – neither quite understands the other, but they both clearly cherish one another for the simple act of existing.
Mardy is a frayed nerve in Kyle’s modern day (around 2011, based on the Bin Laden news) scenes, volatile and able to change emotional directions in an instant without losing any momentum or believability. In both the past and the present, he makes Kyle’s devotion to service utterly clear, and helps us to believe that he would sacrifice much of his personal happiness – as a gay man – to continue this vocation. Moments alongside his love interests, Tobie Donovan’s boyish Harry and Prince Kundai’s strong-willed Chuck, allow Mardy to delve into real tenderness and a natural charm that oozes out of his flirtatious deliveries.
Of course, the dymanics between characters largely work due to the undeniable quality of Rosendorf’s script. Having been fascinated as a gay man himself by the dichotomy of serving a country that seems determined to other and belittle you, he uses his characters to explore this complex matter, one which I would assume no one could ever fully understand. Witty when crafting a comic interaction, but capable of heart wrenching dialogue and pulling the rug out from under his audience to land a moment of unexpected and elevated emotion, Rosendorf has created a wonderful group of characters who each serve their purpose – though, initially, it does feel like the piece may have been equally or even more effective as a three-hander.
While Harry is somewhat of an extraneous character narratively, he does serve a purpose to the overall work – he stumbles over words, speaks without thinking, and provides a comedic foil to the almost-overwhelming trauma the play is rooted in. Tobie Donovan is a capable comedian, and Carrie's himself with such a sweet, trying-his-best energy that the role’s risk of two-dimensionality is quickly sidestepped.
Flexing his own comedic chops as well as his considerable dramatic muscles, Prince Kundai brings a real sense of romanticism to Chuck’s relationship with Kyle. A relative newcomer to the London stage, Kundai is a romcom leading man and a war drama hero wrapped into one, with his sense of disbelief at Kyle’s lack of commitment visibly and palpably growing alongside his increasing inability to deny his own feelings and urges. Within this small cast, Prince Kundai makes himself known as one to watch, equaling leading man Callum Mardy in his more grandiose, intense scenes.
Wisely, director Scott Huran has kept the work intimate and unbusied. When an actor is not in a particular scene, he will stay in the position he ended his last appearance in before re-entering with a change of light when a new scene begins. The other three men only interact with Kyle, and keeping them on the periphery during each other’s scenes lends the idea of the trio orbiting the protagonist, waiting for their turn in his presence. This centring of one character greatly aids the feeling of entrapment Kyle feels more openly and noticeably as the story plays out.
Sorcha Corcoran’s set continues the theme of unadorned simplicity – we are allowed to imagine the scale or physical state of a room, with the bench along the back wall being used as both prop storage and an array of furnishings as required by each scene. Likewise, her costumes give us a small detail about each character – scrub-donning Jack is clearly a doctor or nurse; fatigue-wearing Chuck a recent veteran; casual Harry an everyman youth – however Corcoran's work leans into how internal the work is, leaving some debate to be had over whether the stage is too sparse, or whether this perfectly suits the story being told.
Corcoran’s largely blank stage is adorned with handing tubes of light by designer Lucia Sánchez Roldán, who employs changes in both the colour and intensity of the lights to reflect both changes in location and swellings of emotion or distress. Paired with the naturalistic, everyday sound provided by Chris Warner, with soft birdsong and passing vehicles to remind us that we are in an urban, populous area, the lighting becomes more symbolic – everything else is ordinary and expected, lending these fixtures an assumption of metaphorical significance.
Beautifully acted, deeply felt, and willing to tackle difficult questions and painful circumstances, Paper Cut is a richly layered play and has been directed here with a sure, sturdy hand. Admittedly there is some reliance on visual metaphor that may not translate to all audiences – the lights resonated with me but may simply distract others, and a floor of confetti near the end did leave me with more questions than answers. However, the strength of the actors and calibre of the writing make this nuanced, explorative work a must-see.
Paper Cut plays at the Park Theatre until July 1st
For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/paper-cut
Photos by Stefan Hanegraaf