It is true, and I do not feel any shame in telling you, that I try to learn as little as possible about a show before I review it. Whether I do an interviews with a company or performer or if I heap of tweets in support of a show it is only when I am actually sat in the audience and seeing the show I let myself learn a little bit about the show I am about to see.
For reviewers who might have between 5-10 shows a day during Edinburgh Fringe this is the best advice I have been given, and is the best advice I can share. It allows one to be able to view the shows you go to without any prejudice.
Luke Barnes' Bottleneck was added to my list of shows I wanted to see on the day I went to see it, it fitted in nicely with the line up of shows I was reviewing that day at the Pleasance Courtyard. From the name I was not clear what the show was about and that intrigued me.
Bottleneck is a one man coming-of-age show about a 15 year old Liverpudlian boy called Greg, performed exceptionally by newcomer James Cooney. Greg is your typical teenager facing many trials and tribulations of growing up in Bootle, Liverpool. He lives with his father and spends his time with his best mate who both live and breath for Liverpool FC, it is 1989.
Barnes has written a coming of age drama that that shouldn't have worked as well as it did. The three elements of this production, writer, director and actor, meet in such a way one becomes engrossed by the story as it unfolds. Cooney is breathtakingly honest in his portrayal of Greg and begins to blur the lines between fact and fiction, one very quickly begins to identify with his story.
On his birthday his team is set to play against Sheffield on Wednesday,15th April 1989. Through his best friends brother he was able to score tickets to the game but his father refuses to let him use them due to the nature of how, and where, he got them. So he and his best mate try everything they can to raise the funds to be able to make it to the match. As the story unfolds the reference to The Sun Newspaper that the two boys pinch to try and sell to people door to door, that you begin to see what Bottleneck is about.
"One is there with Greg, one experiences every word he utters, the struggle, the breathlessness, the horror. "
Wednesday April 15th is one of the darkest days in British Football, this was the day of the Hillsborough Disaster where 96 Liverpool Fans where crushed to death. Being from Liverpool I can remember this day as though it was yesterday. I remember going to the Liverpool Football ground, walking around the entire pitch and leaving a bunch of flowers. Once I began to see what Bottleneck's story was focusing on everything started to falling to place, my objectivity as a reviewer was gone and my cheeks began to feel wet.
One knows the outcome of this story and the innocents Greg once enjoyed is stripped from his very being. Cooney, on stage in his Liverpool shirt and occasionally playing with his football, is the embodiment of youth and possess this innocence that is infectious to watch. The cocksure arrogance always playful and a little cute making Greg the typical 15 year old who could do and say pretty much and get away with it. There really aren't words one can use to describe the power to which Cooney brings these end scene to life. One is there with Greg, one experiences every word he utters, the struggle, the breathlessness, the horror. But more heartbreaking to witness is the shell that Greg becomes.
That laughter, the smile and the jokes are gone, he's broken, scared and let with a trauma that will be with him forever. As an audience you feel his pain greatly.
Director Steven Atkinson has brilliantly connected to Barnes text in such a way that it has allowed him to really work with Cooney to bring out the truth and innocence of Greg. One is always challenged with solo shows that have the strength that this production. James Cooney embodies the type of skill and raw honesty that makes acting so appealing as a profession.
No matter how many years go by Wednesday 15th April 1989 is a date that everyone from Liverpool remembers. I never thought any playwright could do the victims justice but Barnes has. As a Scouser he knows all too well the pain that this time brought the region and how that pain remains. Without being overly sentimental he tells a story that is engrossing, painful, unforgettable and incredibly essential.