Written by Joe Hunter
Directed by Rachel Fraser
Moot Point Collective, a queer-led creative company bring Joe Hunter’s new writing piece, Kneecaps, to the Assembly Roxy in Edinburgh. A surreal, and a darkly comic piece which seeds questions surrounding queer identity in a hostile world around the survival mechanics of a life-threatening epidemic.
Isolated away from loved ones, fearful of the encroaching pandemic outside their doors, Ali and Jess live an altogether too familiar life. And if there’s anything which could have made the initial Covid pandemic lockdowns even worse, it would be isolating with your Ex. Initially seeking to return a few of her ex-girlfriends’ goods (including a prized copy of Nacho Libre), Ali ends up having to stay behind in the home she used to frequent as the growing fear over the sudden, sporadically exploding kneecaps becomes too grim a reality.
But what is causing people’s kneecaps to explode? Some say it’s a disease, maybe a virus, but what if it’s a punishment? A divine order, part of the plan. In a new piece of theatrical work, Kneecaps explores the difficulties in pursuing a Queer relationship, and simply existing as a member of the LGBTQI+ community in a world which is so obviously taught to discourage anything of the sort.
Joe Hunter’s surreal premise, a wonderfully grim yet ridiculous one, evokes a similar sense of absurdist methodology in commentary within the writings of Eugène Ionesco (Rhinoceros) and the more contemporary Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. And if anything, Kneecaps could lend itself to leaning further into the Theatre of the surreal mechanics and entrusting its rather spectacular performers with the material at hand.
And heavens, what extraordinary performances from Katrina Allen and Shelley Middler. Overcoming initial reliance with the script’s humour, the pair form a connection early within the story and lay the groundwork of their past difficulties; Jess’s drinking, Ali’s neediness, gradually moving into a more intimate sense of control for comic timing and self-deprecation emerges, enabling Rachel Fraser’s direction to evolve the characterisation.
Though humour is paramount across the show, there’s a disarmingly genuine agony in Shelley Middler’s reaction to tragedy which halts the audience’s breath for a moment. It’s also a dynamic shift in the production, where the comedic aspect remains, but the vulnerability becomes more tangible within Hunter’s script, beautifully carried by both Middler and Allen. It’s a shame that this moment of tragedy, many of our worst nightmares, is swiftly brushed over.
But what ultimately relinquishes these explosively powerful moments is the insistence on returning to one subject matter time-and-again. As the intermittent media broadcasts offer less coherent answers to the Kneecaps epidemic, the story takes a more personal turn to Jess and Ali’s relationship and one vital crux which plagued it.
Organised religion and the LGBTQI+ community often encounter one another at crossroads. The oppressive abuse and misunderstanding at the hands of parents, lovers, friends, and strangers preaching a doctrine is something many who identify as queer cannot overcome and leads to irreparable damage for many. It has a central place within Kneecaps, given Ali’s beliefs and Jess’s more difficult relationship with God.
There’s such depth to unearth that Hunter’s writing isn’t sure where to start, quickly finding itself swirling and narrowing on one aspect of Ali’s identity, Jess’s insecurities, and the crux of the relationship breakdown – faith. It overshadows any other naspect of growth or conversation the two have concerning their relationships and identity, a shame given the power in the eventual realisation that Jess’s self-doubts and insecurities stem from her experiences with her parent’s faith, by which time it’s become over-saturated.
And following a rather harrowing, yet still humorous, sequence in which Jess scrawls the faults in the relationships across the walls, the return to these debates centring on religion causes otherwise valid and recognisable opinions to come over as uncomfortable and ill-thought, spoiling character development.
A surreal and grim comedy, Kneecaps forges tremendous footsteps and has behind it a wealth of talent and ambition to carry through to fruition. Performances from Allen and Middler are touching, humorous, and where necessary, harrowing – but are let down by the script’s limitations and shift from the absurdist nature of the epidemic and potential to a pinpointed aspect, an aspect with monumental importance yes, but in trying to demonstrate the damage Faith can have, finds itself a victim under its shadow.