OLD RED LION THEATRE
7-11 th NOV 2024
31 October, 2023
One of the benefits of living in London is knowing that even if you miss Edinburgh Fringe, venues like Pleasance will have a post-festival series, which gives audiences the opportunity to see the wide-ranging theatre that’s on offer at the Fringe. One of the undeniable hits of the 2023 Fringe was Peter Cook’s BREAKING THE CASTLE, a one-man play about addiction that is drawn from Cook’s own life and experiences.
Words are fickle when you are trying to describe something like BREAKING THE CASTLE. Words become irrelevant as you try to offer something positive and honest to the reader because they should know that the production they might see is not just worthy of their time but that they will feel more inspired by seeing it. BREAKING THE CASTLE is a rare production that never lets you go. It doesn’t preach, but it preaches; this becomes its default setting as soon as you forge this connection with “David” that Cook establishes the minute we see him.
David is an addict, and with his acting career nearly failing to launch and personal issues that have started to entrench themselves in his subconscious, David has fallen deeper into his dependency on drugs. A chance meeting with an old, rich friend provides David with a life-changing opportunity: rehab in Thailand. Initially, there is reluctance as David traverses the rules of rehab, the people, their stories, and the importance all this means for him and his life. Caught at somewhat of a crossroads, David, eager to leave, finds himself swayed by one of the rehab nurses and decides to. This decision is ultimately the first step he takes in wanting to save his life, and as layer after layer falls off, it reveals a man who has never taken a moment to look inward and to understand the role trauma has played in his life.
When we first meet David, he’s walking around his old stomping ground. He's sober and has started to see the benefits of his rehab. On meeting an old friend from his addict days, he’s almost drawn back into the time he’s managed to pull himself out of. Talking to his friend, a lost soul who has no chance of being able to smell how fresh and freeing life can be, David wonders if he’s really about to stick to his sobriety. Without judgement and without passing comment, David extricates himself from his old friend, and with a deep, meaningful look in his eyes, he looks back at him and wishes him well.
BREAKING THE CASTLE is a play that has many layers to it and offers audiences a genuine insight into addiction and the people it impacts. Writer and performer Peter Cook’s decision to use his own life and experiences uplifts the piece greatly, and audiences will be thankful for it. One of the biggest strengths of the piece lay in Cook’s ability to make “David” so honest and relatable. As we follow David from a drug-filled life to rehab, we grow to understand that there are a million and one reasons why someone finds themselves in a situation like this. It’s also a situation that anyone can find themselves in.
"You feel its power, the grip that it has over him, and how, in an instant, a sound can drag him back into a world he wants to leave."
The most beneficial aspect of David’s rehab was discovering how impactful trauma was and is on his life and how this may have had an impact on his dependency on drugs. Through a variety of flashbacks, we get to understand a little more of David’s family life—abusive and distant parents, possible sexual abuse when he was young, unfairly being placed in the shadow of his older, sporty brother, and the illness of his sister. All this seemed to happen at such a young age; how could anyone really come through this unscathed? And with all this he had to contend with, the only real positive he was able to gain was the support he got from a teacher during his debut theatrical production. This scene, like many before it, was played so delicately that one could not fault the power and the impact that it has. All children seek out and search for some form of validation, and for him to get this for his acting, a thing he never thought he would lean into, was profoundly touching.
This early exposure to acting really brilliantly illustrates why acting is so important to him and his life. It is the one consistent thing he’s been able to latch on to, that he’s good at, and the one thing he cannot give up on because to do so would be to give up on his life. It is through a series of flashbacks that the audience becomes more aware of David, his struggles, and the many things that have been placed on him. Interestingly, David talks at length about his sister, someone who was more of a protector of him than I think he ever realised she was, than he does about his older brother. In one of the funnier flashbacks, a young David is clearly visibly disappointed to be constantly compared to his legendary older brother. That doesn’t change the direction the play takes, and it doesn’t impact the narrative slightly. A lot of people, places, and memories fly in and out of David’s stories, but the lack of discourse over his older brother gives the impression there are more, perhaps unresolved, issues between the two of them.
One of the more effective elements of BREAKING THE CASTLE is the discussion around drugs, drug culture, and addiction, which is breathtakingly illustrated as David does a show-and-tell featuring his drug of choice, crystal meth. Even now, I can hear the sound the crystal makes as it hits the base of the glass pipe and the clicking sound the light makes. In all the noise, sweat, and movement, David pauses for a moment to tell him what these feelings mean to him, what those sounds mean to him, and how intoxicating they are. And it is this sound of the crystal hitting the bottom of the glass pipe that is repeated briefly in the distance; you hear it again and again as David talks. You feel its power, the grip that it has over him, and how, in an instant, a sound can drag him back into a world he wants to leave.
As a performer, Peter Cook engages you from the moment you meet him on the edge of the stage. The first words he utters offer insight into not only his character but also him as a person and the experiences he’s endured. But, most powerful of all, there is no blame. There is no blame towards his parents, school, or being forced into doing a job for Mortein. There is a positivity within his text and in the nature of how Cook brings David to life that is as life-affirming as it sounds. You’re rooting for David hard, and you see that what he’s having to deal with is not easy and perhaps not even solvable, but you root for him to not slip.
As for David, Cook ensures that we know that David is aware that he’s an addict and that he’s not cured; there is no cure. He’s going to be an addict for the rest of his life, and he’s going to face challenges, flashbacks, and memories that are going to hurt him and place him in a dark place, but he knows he has to maintain the strength that he’s found within himself. He knows that if he can do that, he can continue on this new, clearer path he’s created for himself, one day at a time.