The title of the prolific Flo Read’s latest offering at the Burton-Taylor studio rather unfortunately brings to mind tired puns on two of student drama’s most tired themes: drugs (nasal), and sex (oral). The play does feature sex, and does (briefly, indirectly) feature drugs – but it would be a grave injustice to reduce the copious, thoughtful scope of this darkly beguiling one-hander to that.
The title refers to Penny, the love interest of washed-up erotic fiction writer Matt Carter, who is played (along with all the other characters) with compelling energy by Josh Dolphin. According to Carter, the belle who he’s moved into a flat with is drop-dead gorgeous, intelligent, funny, and dynamite in the sack. The catch: she also happens to be a blow-up sex doll. And a rather shoddily-made one at that, a tasteless novelty prop at a lad’s stag piss-up, rubber lips lolling luridly open. Despite this, Carter has fallen wildly in love with her. But an upcoming Christmas visit from his parents and ever-more frequent knocks on the door from his poverty-stricken landlord threaten to puncture (sorry) Carter’s world.
Josh Dolphin takes a while to build up a head of steam in the part, particularly as he’s laden in the foothills of the play with some clunking “creepy guy” clichés – the story of early childhood embarrassment, wetting himself when he forgot to bring his recorder to music class, doesn’t really ring true. Dolphin gets into his stride, though, at the arrival of the other characters on the scene. To his considerable credit, he flawlessly manages to voice four different characters in quick-fire conversation without a (noticeable) slip. The neurotic mother, the gormless father, and the not-quite-all-there landlord all have clearly distinguished voices, that act as punctuating foot-holds for Carter’s lengthy, self-psychoanalysing monologues. I almost wish he’d been less impressive so I could have made a joke about the doll stealing the show. Although, it would probably be wrong to say that there was no contest – as Carter’s impassioned declarations of love to Penny go on, we catch ourselves falling into the uncanny mental trompe-l’oeil that she is actually his interlocutor.
This disconcerting, off-kilter effect is matched by the otherworldly, lyrical quality that is the hallmark of Read’s writing. Chinks sporadically appear in the naturalism to allow a wisp of fine, ethereal poeticism to creep through. The variation and scale of the ideas covered is dizzying – from what will remain after the apocalypse (“termites, chewing gum, and plastic bags”), to the impact of Carter’s father’s dementia, to the paradoxical intimacy of erotic fiction, to Shakespearean authorship. The only problem with this is that her characters can occasionally become vehicles for her essayistic reflections, as enchanting and disconcerting those reflections might be. Despite this, the plotting is tight (although a lot of work is left to the audience to figure out what actually happens in the denouement’s final, shocking twist), and the play rarely plods.
Some credit for this must go to Dolphin, if only for learning the lines so astutely (it’s easy to forget what a Herculean task that is – see how long it takes you to learn this review word-for-word; that’s about a twentieth of Blow). His endeavours were not for nothing; Blow is a curious, off-beat feather in Read’s ever more crowded cap.