The Sly Rat Co.’s production of Steven McCall’s Pluck! certainly covers a lot of ground in a tight 60 minute show. From marriage and masculinity to gun laws and underground dog fighting, from domestic violence to spaghetti westerns. It is a rapid onslaught of clever quips and absurd characters from the moment the smooth tones of the pre-show announcement. The pace and punch of this satirical piece is impressive, and director Alan Chambers should be commended on his ability to shape such a unrelenting performance without driving the audience to exhaustion, but to what ends ultimately seems unclear.

McCall’s script is playful an exceptionally clever, very slick. It’s the story of a couple seeking redemption after a rocky patch in their marriage, presented on a bed of pop-culture references, a homage to spaghetti westerns and some fantastically phallus based humour which at once highlights our obsession with male desire and the sticky reality of its realisation. This humour is pitched at a level that had everyone in the audience laughing along: men and women, young and old.

The central character, Dr Jeremy Pluck, is a fantastic piece of work, played perfectly by Brendan Ewing. After he and his wife Daphne are robbed at gunpoint, Pluck becomes preoccupied with the idea of Man as Protector: he buries his own sense of worth, his sense of masculinity, in his ability to protect the women around him. Pluck, in trying to fulfil his role as protector, is confronted by a culture of violence, gendered violence, and the story plays out as his attempts to find a comfortable position in this murky world. Pluck speaks directly with the audience, giving us a hugely valuable insight into one man’s reluctance to engage with a culture of vigilantism, with the strained justification and sexualisation of violence. We see a man who is just as scared as his wife, scared of not being enough, of bearing responsibility and failing. Ewing does an incredible job, finding the perfect balance between the comedy of this absurd and obnoxious character, and the poignant moments when we realise that Pluck is actually the voice of reason in this piece.

Pluck! is a madhouse of well-written, well-directed and excellently performed characters. Special mention to Walter Hanna who manages to chameleon his way through a plethora of truly incredible characters, from addled gun dealer to a philosophical pitbull. The pitbull, Gabriel, adds another interesting layer to McCall and Chambers’ exploration of the ‘innate’ nature of masculine violence and is both grotesque and saintly. There were a few slips with lines, leaving a few of the performers a little shaky and unsure, accents slipped at times and cues were missed, but this could probably be put down to opening night nerves.

A highlight, quite literally, was Valentina Serebrennikova’s costume design, using slashes of yellow in an otherwise naturalistic design, creating a sense of unity and flow. She and prop designer Trevor Chambers did an excellent job of creating a sense of grounded connectivity throughout the piece with the touches of yellow (even down to Pluck’s socks, brilliant) which is also playfully suggestive of that pesky duck. Wally Eastland’s lighting design also used colour to great effect. He perfectly matched Pluck’s changing inner turmoil, creating vastly different worlds with slight shifts in colour and brightness. It certainly took the play into that world of heightened reality that is required by McCall’s intricate text and Chambers’ manic directorial style.

Despite all the fast paced fun and clever pop-culture quips, there was something lacking in the piece: as an audience member I found that the conceptual grounding for the piece seemed to fall away towards the ending, the play seemed a little unsure of itself.

Opening the program to the company notes, the first line reads ‘Men are pathetic creatures.’ A bold statement, to say the least, but as the notes continue they stumble, regress, fretting over what they are trying to articulate about masculinity. The show itself follows this same pattern, making bold statements about masculinity, about the male affinity with violence, but then stumbles and recounts. This in itself isn’t a problem, in fact it reveals the inherent difficulty of discussing gender politics, the pressure of articulating ideas so central to human experience and interaction while also not trying to enrage anyone.

Pluck! certainly addresses the pressures and contradictions of ‘manhood’ and its approach to violence is as funny as it is affecting. There is a particularly brilliant image of Pluck running around with his newly purchased pistol yelling ‘pew, pew’, providing a hugely important statement about the immaturity of our understanding of and interaction with violent culture. This idea is compounded by Wyatt, the unmistakable alpha male, and his tendency to mistake violence for justice.

However, as the story begins to build pace, hurtling towards the increasingly obvious resolution, the violence of the piece begins to take prime position. Some of this violence seems gratuitous and unrealistic, which is certainly not helped by poor sound effects, and undermines the subtlety of the previous references to domestic violence which was more of a reflection of masculinity than the nature of violence itself. Indeed, the narrative of Pluck’s masculinity begins to fall away: as Pluck is caught up in the action he stops addressing the audience directly, and the entertaining and poignant insights into Pluck’s mind are lost. We lose the sense that this is a man struggling with his masculinity and instead are pulled into a strange Bonnie and Clyde narrative, with an emphasis on violence as the third strange bedfellow in their relationship.

Pluck! was, at times, a little too absurd, a little too brash, but this was punctured by some truly excellent and insightful moments where the audience is allowed to laugh and marvel at the repercussions of gender politics. Those moments perhaps could have been more effective if allowed to settle longer, but the momentum of the piece was an unrelenting. It flipped between the really absurd, and the absurdly real, between an exploration of masculinity and a look at both genders’ relationship with violence.

In the end, the coin seemed to fall on the side of the absurd, and the violent and we left the Plucks cackling over their murders. I don’t say this often, but I really just wanted to know how Pluck felt about his manhood in that moment.

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