76th Edinburgh Fringe: REVIEW
"This is a multilayered character that is as complex as he is perhaps self-destructive, always blowing his chances at finding ‘love’."
Written by Mikey Fleming and Colman Hayes. Directed by Mikey Fleming. Performed by Colman Hayes.
August 22, 2023
A Few Words Theatre
Cathal is the best man at his best friend John’s wedding. The fact that John and Cathal are the last ‘singletons’ in their friendship circle hasn’t escaped Cathal, and now that John has married Rebecca, this has left Cathal in somewhat of an existential crisis. the ‘last man standing’. Uncertain how to precede his speech, Cathal decides to wing it, in which he opens up about his feelings, his regrets, and what he hopes for his future.
Audience participation is not something I look for in a show and when it is sprung on me it really gets my back up, but on walking into the venue for Best Man and seeing co-writer and director Mikey Fleming guide people to the bride or groom side of the isles, the penny still didn’t drop about what this show was about. The Fringe is one of the best places in the world to see theatre completely blind. I know this is ironic as a reviewer; my main job is to write reviews to encourage you to see a show, but that aside, the best way to enjoy the world's biggest festival is to always go into a show with little to no idea of what it's about.
What co-writers Fleming (also the director) and Coleman Hayes have created is a blend of theatre and stand-up that shatters the fourth wall and fully immerses their audience. It relies on some audience participation, but only on the periphery. Relying on audience participation can be tough, and even harder in a production like Best Man, but what we gain from this as an audience is a show that is so breathtakingly original. Hayes confidence and performance are indescribable; he manages to put the audience at ease, which allows him to explore Cathal’s fears and regrets in such an authentic way.
Best Man is the type of show you hope you get to see at the Fringe. The creativity of the co-writers is mind-blowing, and the way the story unfolds and connects with the audience is truly amazing. You feel for Cathal because of the heart and soul that Hayes puts into the character and his performance. This is a multilayered character that is as complex as he is perhaps self-destructive, always blowing his chances at finding ‘love’. The moment we meet Cathal, you can feel his pain and, somewhat, understand the loss and heartbreak that he feels at losing his best friend to marriage. As Cathal begins his train-wreck of a speech, it’s hard not to read between the lines, and the more Cathal talks, the more of an insight into his friendship with John the audience gets.
To me, this wasn’t just about Cathal’s loss; to a lot of people, marriage = death, but that doesn’t mean that Cathal and John’s friendship is over and that they’re not going to see each other again. But I kept getting this niggling feeling that there was something else going on deep inside Cathal, with John’s marriage unshackling it and allowing a wave of thoughts and emotions to rise to the surface. Is it that Cathal worries that the closeness that he has had with John is now over because John now has a wife? Cathal seems to be in real pain, masking it as a breakdown over what has happened.
It can’t just be this fear of being literally the last man on the shelf or that he’s never going to find love. As he talks about his past relationships, he all but tells us that as much as he loved the connections he had with his girlfriends, it never seemed right; he always seemed to destroy the relationships. The only constant in his life, the only relationship that has ever mattered and that means more to him than anything else in this world, is his friendship with John. This is when Best Man took an interesting turn for me. Partly because Hayes was so effective, emotionally raw, and convincing every time he talked about the friendship between Cathal and John, I couldn’t help but feel that his ‘breakdown’ as Best Man has something to do with what hasn’t been said between them thus far, a missed opportunity to express Cathal’s emotional love for John.
Spoiler of sorts: towards the end of the play, Cathal, with his heart literally on his sleeve, talks directly to John but gives the impression that it’s to both John and his new wife. As Cathal talks, perhaps the only time in their history where he genuinely confesses his love for John, half bent over, almost on his knees, he looks at John and tells him how he feels. There is a real pain there—perhaps regret that in the years they’ve had together, he’s missed opportunities where he could have said something. He was happy and content with just having John as a close friend, and he didn’t need to explore his feelings for John any further. I got the impression that John would have been receptive to hearing how Cathal felt about him, and though I don’t think that they would have entered into a relationship, I do think that John would have been a solid enough friend to have stuck with Cathal, giving him the support and comfort he needed to explore his sexuality.
I could be way off the mark, but halfway through the play, my gaydar started to buzz, if only slightly, until that penultimate scene as Cathal unleashes all of his emotions that had been bottled inside. Cathal doesn’t just fear the loss of his friend; again, John’s not dead, no matter what your view of marriage is, but it's his fear that their bond, the connection that they’ve forged, is over. There is a love that Cathal has for John that goes deeper than simple friendship or even close male friendship. Either way, what is remarkable is that all the characters, all the imagined histories, and all the stories seemed so genuine and real. These are people we, in just under an hour, grew to know, understand, and really connect with.
The narrative relies heavily on the audience, as they are the additional characters: Rebecca’s parents, bridesmaids, ex-girlfriends, her new boyfriend, etc. We are not just participating but are fully part of this created world, and the more Hayes gives life to Cathal, the more believable it becomes. The way Hayes works the audience, how he creates these characters and threads them all into a cohesive whole, is spellbinding and a wonder to see. There is very little back and forth between Hayes and the audience; only a few times did members of the audience fully get involved. In the moment of Cathal’s utter physical collapse as he’s spent everything he has and he’s laying on the floor, just as the silence gets a little awkward, someone from the audience said, 'You chose him to be your best man’, which got a huge laugh from the audience.
Fleming and Hayes have created something that is uniquely layered, engaging, darkly funny, and deeply moving. For all the horrid things Cathal says and has done in his life, you still feel for him; you want to hug him and ask him if he’s going to be okay. Few Fringe shows can do what Best Man has done, and the sold-out run is a testament to the quality of the work. This is a beautiful play brought to life by two very passionate and gifted theatre makers.
"The way Hayes works the audience, how he creates these characters and threads them all into a cohesive whole, is spellbinding and a wonder to see."