Hoke's Bluff

Wed 8th – Sat 11th October 2014

reviews

Ed Grimble

at 00:03 on 9th Oct 2014

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‘Release the ball, Tyler.’ It is these four words, and their underlying themes of decisiveness, responsibility, and catharsis, which sit at the heart of Action Hero’s thoroughly entertaining play, ‘Hoke’s Bluff’.

‘Hoke’s Bluff’ begins with an opening that takes in media res, and runs with it. Runs far. The audience enters the in-the-round auditorium, LMFAO’s ‘Party Rock Anthem’ blaring over the speakers. As we take out seats court side (quite literally; a basketball court has been taped out on the otherwise bare stage), the Hoke’s Bluff Wildcats’ mascot storms up and down, encouraging the audience to cheer the team on- as well as wave the small paper flags placed on every seat. However, I cannot help but think that the effect would have been slightly more immersive had the audience numbered slightly more than the 30 or so people that were present. Nevertheless, this degree of participation and total disregard for the theatrical fourth wall, continuing throughout the performance with audience members regularly being ‘addressed’ as though part of the case, pulls viewers into Tyler’s world. We are as much a part of the events of the play as he is, and we hope and suffer and, ultimately, succeed with him.

However, the exuberant college sports feel forms only one half of ‘Hoke’s Bluff’. At crucial crescendos, the ever present figure of the referee (Laura Dannequin) gives a sharp blast on a whistle that immediately kills the scene. This sports-field sword of Damocles lurks throughout the play, maintaining a driving feeling of ominousness that never leaves the auditorium. The jarring contrast of Dannequin’s monochrome clad figure, with the otherwise dominating Wildcat team colours of gaudy red and yellow, further exacerbate the threatening nature of her character.

Alongside Dannequin are James Stenhouse and Gemma Paintin, who complete ‘Hoke’s Bluff’s threesome cast. Although Stenhouse spends much of his time as Tyler, the star of the School’s football (although sometimes basketball, or ice hockey- Action Hero are telling us that it doesn't matter which sport) team, he and Paintin between them play each and every role in the play. And boy do they do it well. Their flitting seamlessly between multiple roles gives a terrific pace to the play as dialogue is, save for one or two stumbles, fast and sharp. There are few poor lines in the script too. Dialogue is clean, true to life, and possesses a ceaseless, dry humour that never falters. Indeed, this is seen no more clearly than when Stenhouse, temporarily relinquishing his role as Tyler, single handedly plays the entire Hoke’s Bluff cheerleading team- a feat which his male, British accent renders all the more entertaining.

This humour stands in stark contrast to Tyler’s harrowing emotional journey. He carries the expectations, responsibilities, and pressures of his coach, teammates, and school- and Stenhouse’s performance shows us the draining and crushing effect that this has on the young man.

‘Hoke’s Bluff’ is a success. It is not faultless, by any means, but it is a play that gives us moments of hilarity, absurdity, inspiration, and poignancy from start to finish. Action Hero have by no means dropped the ball here, providing an excellent night’s theatre.

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Leah Byrne

at 21:03 on 9th Oct 2014

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With a piece of theatre as varied and dissectible as Hoke’s Bluff, there is only one place I can really begin, and that is, funnily enough, the beginning (or what appears to be). What many audience members mistook for an unconventional opening was actually an energetic, engaging pre-show, the first of various Brechtian devices used throughout the show; upon entering the traverse theatre space (which simultaneously figures the audience as both game spectators and changing-room-bound players of high-school sport) the audience is bombarded by brash, supposedly “motivational” music and greeted by the vapid, toothy smiles of a blonde cheerleader selling cheap popcorn. So far, so stereotypically American. And as the show seems to be set in an ambiguous American everytown, so is its hero, fittingly, a deliberately bland everyman, billed as a prodigal baseball/basketball/football/ice hockey player.

Whilst the play seems a mocking parody of, not just “inspirational” American sports films, but the overarching culture of the country itself, there remains a distinct Britishness that gives the piece a much-needed sense of self-awareness. Indeed, the laughter is heartiest during the deadpan rapport between English-accented cheerleader Connie and her identikit teammates. Not to mention the absurd, lengthy rants of a dead-behind-the-eyes coach, who lists in a manner not unlike that of a Monty Python sketch the various techniques the team are expected to know, not least the “Pilgrim Shuffle” and the “Abraham Lincoln”.

However, for a show that seemed largely concerned with self-aware mockery, it seems to suddenly change tack halfway through. Rather than continuing upon its semi-didactic journey (the moral being that there’s more to life than films that tell you there’s more to life than winning), it suddenly seems to, well, care. Suddenly, monologues are not delivered ironically but with raw, almost Stanislavskian, intimate emotion, the knowing glances to the audience becoming fewer and fewer as we press on towards the fitting denouement of an ending, one which echoes the decrescendo at every crucial climax brought about by Laura Dannequin’s smooth-toned referee and her much-featured whistle.

The play is packed full of perfectly nuanced performances, not least by the effortlessly multi-roled James Stenhouse and Gemma Paintin. Indeed, it seems almost ungrateful to say that for a play written around the concept of the stereotypes of American sport, it still seems to teeter on the edge of sympathising with, rather than mocking, what it set out to satirise. Yet it still isn’t an own goal, not by a long shot. Put simply, it is a fast-paced, rip-roaring crowd-pleaser that conjures up more raw emotion than all of its source material put together. Bravo, Action Hero.

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