The stories are at once autobiographical and magical and the production introduces us to Marra’s past youth with style and humour. Entering the theatre, we are treated to a messy tweenage bedroom with a clothes-strewn floor, skates and a child-sized desk. Eamonn enters with amusing spectacle on a bicycle, immediately capturing the audience’s allegiance. His over-the-top entrance as a fully grown man dressed in boys’ shorts and a Planet8 hoody, coinciding with ridiculous welcome-to-the-stage flashing coloured lights, sets us up for a show that approaches recollections of juvenile life with a blend of merriment and regret.
The production elements rise well to the challenge of lifting Marra’s writing beyond the page in a theatrical form. What could have ended up as a bare-staged presentation of a sad stand-up set is given life by Harriet Denby’s set design, Michael Trigg’s lighting design and Emi Pogoni’s sound design. The most magical moments of the show and the best example of all the production elements working in perfect harmony are when Marra transforms into Will Jones. During these transitions, Pogoni provides a soundscape that meshes synth notes, dial-up noises and bike bells. It’s perfectly sci-fi, nostalgic and tender. A lighting trick is used to firmly embed Marra’s Animorphs reference point into the theatrical experience of the audience. The disembodied puppet stand-in for Will that has been constructed from jeans, a USA hoody and a terrifically bad wig is cleverly used to the audience’s glee. The overall impact is mesmerising, fully engrossing and a beautiful synergy of stage elements with text. Director Adam Goodall has done an excellent job of weaving these threads together to present a symbiosis that is more than the sum of its parts.
Marra’s performance style plays in harmony with the writing and production design superbly well. Marra’s ability to balance opposing forces of joy and pain, anxiety and ease, self-awareness and earnestness is genius. You can tell he is not a polished stage performer; you can see him struggling sometimes with being centre of attention as he stumbles a little with diction and clarity of movement. Yet his uncertainty becomes an arresting display of vulnerability that brilliantly connects the audience to the text. The true power of Marra’s performance style is how it acts as a leveller. He and the audience are equal, which makes it easier for everyone to relate to one another. As I watch Marra tell his story, I feel Marra’s pain as my own pain. Like the time he failed the beep test (“fuck the beep test!”), or the time no one would dance with him at the junior school disco because he stank of fake coconut from the cheap wax he’d tried to spike his too-long hair with. I live these experiences with Marra as he tells them and for a play that is all about wanting to be someone else, it is an incredible metatheatrical experience for the audience to feel like they are the same as the performer and the performer is the same as them.
The layers of pain, nostalgia, identity crisis and humour presented with such skill are totally infectious. I am simultaneously delighted and uncomfortable throughout the show. Everytime I laugh at Marra’s comedy, I am self-conscious. He’s killing me softly with his jokes, reliving my pain with his words. I repeatedly say to myself, “omg, this is my life”. It’s a disconcerting experience and exactly what I hope happens everytime I go to the theatre. Marra talks about body issues, bullying and mental health with undeniable honesty and raw vulnerability. These are his stories. They may not be everyone’s stories but they are stories for every early noughties kid like me; for who ever wondered when Tobias would finally be free from his red-tailed hawk prison; for who ever wanted to change their body because of unrealistic and unfair standards; for who ever laid in bed at night dreading school the next day and wishing for their world to change. It’s a devastating commonality to share but the shared hurt is healing and empowering, especially because the experience is so funny.
Laughing at pain is central to the premise of I, Will Jones. The show is much like Marra’s description of Blink-182: “they pull you in with these funny songs until you realise there must be something wrong with you for liking them, then they have sad songs for that feeling.” Marra specialises in that feeling, that perfect blend of funny/sad that speaks to the collective disillusioned millennial psyche. I, Will Jones is like a theatrical equivalent of the ‘Dawson Crying’ meme. It’s funny because pain is funny, then it’s painful because it was funny, then it’s funny again. It’s a fucking exhausting loop our internet-obsessed generation consistently finds itself in due to the chaos and discontent of the modern world, but I digress. The point is, Marra has his finger on the pulse of this generation. And let’s be honest, it’s not surprising our age group’s got a kind of fucked up appetite for laughing at pain when many of us were raised on a diet of terrible songs like Blink-182’s “I Wanna Fuck a Dog in the Ass”. This is a realisation I had during the show.
I, Will Jones doesn’t quite manage to fully explore is it’s own stance on that loop. After you listen to the funny Blink-182 songs, you listen to the sad Blink-182 songs, but what’s beyond that? The show’s ending is abrupt; it feels unpurposefully undecided and underdeveloped, as it leaves us deep in the dark about Marra’s final comments. It’s an ending better suited to a serial like Animorphs where you know the next installment is coming soon, but maybe an hour is too short for I, Will Jones to feel complete. Perhaps the ending is where Marra’s performance style of low-key delivery should have been pushed further beyond his comfort zone to give us the heightened theatrical ending the rest of the show earned. Despite this, I, Will Jones is a truly rewarding piece of theatre.
It’s uncomfortable and beautiful to be ourselves. Part of being ourselves is being honest about our desires. After watching I, Will Jones, I have a better understanding that the desire for us to be other people covers a deeper desire of wanting to be loved and understood by other people. I feel a renewed appreciation for the power of theatre to connect human beings with each other and a strong admiration for the skill and obvious sensitivity and humanity of all the people involved. Go see it because I think you will too.
I, Will Jones is currently showing at BATS Theatre until Saturday 23 September. For ticketing information, please visit the BATS Theatre website.