The snare that the autobiographical play sets for itself is to turn inwards, collapsing into a black hole of self-absorption. It’s a trap that Toxic, the second play by It’s A Sin graduate Nathaniel Hall, side-steps with meticulous aplomb.
A live wire two-hander, Toxic tracks the trajectory of a relationship between two members of the LGBTQIA+ community from ignition to re-entry, picking apart the shards it leaves behind in the aftermath of its bloody crash-landing.
Hall and Josh-Susan Enright as The Playwright and The Performer make an engaging and credible pair, fleshing out their lines with delight and sensitivity, so that the biographies of their characters as they bare them to one another never feel schematic. Right from the opening monologue, each is so much more than a diagnosis or a mixed ethnic background. Poised at stage left and right, each with a microphone stand to hand, there’s an ease and familiarity in the deft choreography of their courtship, like sadly-departed Europop purveyors London Boys if they’d been partners in anything other than the musical sense.
Each lover could be the other’s broken mirror, a suggestion emphasised by the near-symmetry of the neon bare bones of the minimal set, brickwork as exposed as the scars that tattoo their hearts, and the patchwork of styles that Hall uses to stitch together the scenes in which their lives come together and unravel. That it flows so seamlessly is in no small part owing to the unobtrusive artistry of the back stage contributors, not only Lu Herbert’s design but SHAR’s note-perfect soundtrack.
Two landline telephones, one push-button, the other with a rotary dial, maintain the balance of the set, at first a knowingly retro design feature in keeping with an admiration for 1980s situation comedy The Golden Girls, but as the ecstasy of mutual discovery gives way to the comedown of disenchantment, they take on a more charged significance.
Importantly, Toxic never neglects the vein of comedy that keeps the heart beating even in the darkest of times. In this it is abetted by Hall’s ear for the everyday gems of conversational language, an aural acuity that withstands comparison with Coronation Street’s godfather, Tony Warren. A line like “my dad bought me a Furby, but I drowned it” perfectly straddles the line between the tragic and the comedic.
It’s not just the gab that’s gifted. Hall and Enright also convey intercourse of the most physical kind with tongues not only in cheeks, but practically anywhere else imaginable, capturing the occasional indignities of sex and the intensity of its intimacies. Perhaps more than love, it’s the meaning that their condom-free penetration has for The Performer that tears them apart. “It’s our thing,” they protest, up until the threesome when it isn’t anymore, the stars clouding their eyes rudely plucked away.
As much kitsch in synch as kitchen synch, equally observant and empathetic and far from hogging the limelight, Hall’s play directs it outward, shining its mirrorball illumination into lives left brittle by trauma, declining to paper over the cracks, but in bringing them into the light, clearing a flightpath to healing.
If trauma is toxic, Toxic is an antidote.
Toxic is at HOME, Manchester until October 28, 2023. For more information, click here.