Tonight with Donny Stixx; Chicken

Matt Trueman reviews: Tonight with Donny Stixx (2 stars) | Chicken (2 stars)

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Published 19 Aug 2015

Donny Stixx is on stage—the most hated boy alive, so the tabloids say—regaling us with tales from his life. He wants to tell us about his magic act, about his ambitions for stardom and about his dear mum. We want to know about the killings.

Philip Ridley’s monologue – a companion piece, of sorts, to his 2012 Fringe First-winner Dark Vanilla Jungle – is a dark little yarn about a vulnerable would-be magician. Its satire is sharp and it’s performed with sweaty pizzazz by Sean Michael Verey, but it is nonetheless a seriously misguided piece of theatre – both as a text and in production. Tonight with Donny Stixx exploits autism as a plot point without seeking to explore or explain it.

Donny Stixx, “the boy with the tricks,” is clearly somewhere on the spectrum – though Ridley’s text never makes that explicit. Certainly, he can’t read social signals, so when his magic act gets a slot on the local shopping mall stage, he’s blind to the fact that the crowd is mocking him, not cheering him on. The cameraphones filming away, he assumes, are recording his brilliance, not capturing his crapness ready for YouTube.

Ridley’s on the attack, here: lambasting the trolls and the snarks, snapping back at the culture of exploitation and humiliation behind Simon Cowell’s success. Stixx is every Jedward and every Ablisa. He’s all those deluded Britons that think they’ve got talent. He’s Susan Boyle without a singing voice.

This, after all, is a world in which a mass murderer has a showbiz agent; where a vulnerable boy who needs protecting is instead cruelly cut down to size, then exposed and exploited for other people’s profit. Tonight with Donny Stixx presents an economy of infamy, the after-dinner circuit of Max Clifford’s dreams. You sell your soul, then you sell your story. You’ve got to kill to make a killing.

It’s not like Stixx springs from nowhere. He’s a product of a culture that values fame over everything, but he’s also wound up with a skewed view of masculinity. Stixx is an accidental misogynist in a shit '70s suit. He associates stardom with manliness, fixating on a male model/actor, and upholding outdated modes of chivalry and masculinity – all condoms and lager and too much cheap aftershave.

But Ridley wants us to both pity and fear Donny. We know that he’s killed from the start, and he’s quick to lash out in fury at hecklers in the audience, but this is still a boy with both behavioural and developmental issues. As with Dark Vanilla Jungle, in which a girl walks into her own abuse, we’re asked to judge Donny’s responsibility.

However, if Donny’s on the spectrum—and Verey’s cackhanded, cross-eyed performance makes pretty clear that he is—then there’s nothing to judge. What’s more, it’s hard to shake the sense that a developmental disorder is used to up Donny’s idiosyncrasy and inject an element of unpredictability.

Verey’s performance, for all the vim and vigour with which he hops between characters, is just as problematic – less 'Donny Stixx, boy with tricks', than 'Donny Stixx, boy with ticks'. Not only does it feel like a generic, imprecise portrayal of the way the condition manifests itself physically, it’s also completely unnecessary to act that at all.

Verey’s a slim, able-bodied actor playing an obsese character with a club foot. He doesn’t put on a limp or puff out his cheeks. So why all this blinking and ticking? It’s deeply uncomfortable.

Molly Davies’s Chicken is more unsettling than uncomfortable, but it’s a queer fish that never makes its intentions clear then stops so abruptly it’s like she’s given up mid-draft.

It’s a play that tries to do too much at once, imagining a world of witchcraft, imminent environmental catastrophe and chicken-led revolution – not to mention a newly independent East Anglia cut off from the rest of the country. Any of those might make for a decent play. Together, they overload a bad one, and Davies doesn’t stick around long enough to see how the various elements connect.

Teenage Tesco employee Emily (Rosie Sheehy) explains that witches were swum on the site of the supermarket and now, with bad things following bad thoughts, she’s convinced she’s a witch, capable of hexing her neighbours and commanding the county’s countless chickens.

Her mum Lorraine (Josephine Butler) works at a battery farm, caring for chickens that her husband, Henry (Benjamin Dilloway), helps to slaughter. He's a rural revolutionary on the side, "liberating" empty second homes to protect them from "returners" like Layla (Beth Cooke), who's left London for a simpler, slower life in chicken farming.

There are some vivid and disconcerting images in here: our disrespect for nature—Henry speaks of chickens poorly slaughtered, half-stunned, necks slit, boiling alive—seems the cause for its revolt. Japanese knotweed’s suffocating London, while foxes attack. The rising sea’s out for revenge. Witchcraft, then, is a symbol of reconnecting with the world, as Emily channels earthly energy.

It’s rare to see a rural setting, and Steven Atkinson’s straw-clad production crackles with atmosphere and an unnerving gothic allure. Then, out of nowhere, it simply stops – just when you were getting into it. Shame.