“I don’t understand! I don’t know what’s goin’ on!!” screams trailer park trash Agnes White, off her head during a full-on orgy of drugs and paranoia.
Tracy Letts’Bug opened last night at London’s bijou popup theatre, Found111, with actor of the moment, TV hunk James Norton, competing cheekbone to cheekbone with the electrifying Kate Fleetwood.
I didn’t know if they or me would be tipped over the edge first in his harrowing, brutally shocking story of abuse, self-harm and manic conspiracy theories.
I’m itching to say that I enjoyed Bug but it’s not a play that leaves you giddy with euphoria. There are a lot of emotions swirling around but mainly tiredness after having nightmares and a sleepless night thinking about Norton’s deranged drifter, Peter Evans, trying a spot of home dentistry.
Bug isn’t for the squeamish – or the claustrophobic. Found111, easily missed, is discovered through a graffiti-covered doorway next to Foyles in Charing Cross Road.
It is a confined space up 71 steps (not accessible for the disabled). Actually, let’s make no bones about this, it’s a small, dark, hot and stuffy room filled with uncomfortable seats crammed together. You have to get on with your fellow theatre-goers as we’re virtually sitting in each other’s laps.
But the performance space is ideally suited to Bug. It pitches the audience right in the middle of the story in a voyeuristic intimacy. Bug is set in a sleazy motel room and we’re right in there, among the mini-bar and unwashed coffee cups, with its cast.
The female characters, Agnes (Fleetwood), on the run from an abusive marriage, and the trauma of losing her young son in, frankly, bizarre circumstances, and lesbian pal Ronnie (Daisy Lewis – in her daisy dukes and skimpy top) are your average bottom drawer American stereotypes.
They’re the kind of women who frequent Jerry Springer and you read about in the National Enquirer (the only difference being that both actresses appear to have teeth, and good ones too).
They party hard, live life on the edge, smoke a lot of crack and weed, and somehow get through life before life gets through with them. It ain’t pretty.
Bug is the story of two lost and broken souls whose brief, explosive, relationship flutters briefly in the light before being brutally snuffed out. It’s visceral, bloody, and powerful, but there are times when you’ve just got to avert your eyes to avoid rising nausea.
Norton’s Peter Evans is unnerving from the off. Happy to smoke a bong, he refuses a line of coke on the grounds that it’s unhealthy (go figure). He inevitably ends up in bed with Agnes only to wake in the morning covered in insect bites (this is the part where the audience starts having a little scratch and wondering if it’s healthy to be sitting so close to our fellow first-nighters).
Director Simon Evans (no relation) has given his make-up artist carte blanche to conjure up some truly gruesome body sores, especially for James Norton (sorry ladies, but it’s not a pretty sight).
“We’re infested” he hisses before launching into a full scale meltdown that involves him digging into his skin to extract the microscopic little blighters that have set up home in his well-toned body.
Before you know it this darkly comic tale takes on a frenzied weirdness that wouldn’t look out of place in X Files. Evans is convinced he’s being used for secret medical experiments – or is he just a delusional paranoid schizophrenic?
I favour the latter explanation. Both Fleetwood and Norton deliver muscular and formidable performances. Fleetwood’s sad, crazed, cat-like eyes flash with longing and a desire to be loved while her soft, drawling accent, raspy from too many cigarettes and bottles of booze, comes straight from the very best of theatre’s flawed and damned women.
James Norton, away from the body-politics of TV, is utterly compelling as the lunatic Evans. Initially so coy, charming and modest, he draws in the fragile and vulnerable Agnes with the dexterity of a spider. She is mesmerised by his persuasive and frenzied rants.
There’s dynamic support from Alec Newman, as Agnes’ violent ex-con, ex-husband, and Daisy Lewis though both parts are underwritten.
Bug makes uncomfortable watching, literally and artistically, but there’s no escaping its disturbing intensity.
Running at Found111 until May 7.
Intense, electrifying and disturbing. James Norton & Kate Fleetwood are mesmerising in Tracy Letts’ visceral and darkly comic drama, Bug, at Found111.