High school has always been a special sort of hell, I daresay, even if you were once the class princess, or star QB, or head boy… whatever the cultural equivalent of a well-respected pillar of an adolescent society might be. You look back and lament, you reminisce, and you realize indeed it’s been a rite of passage, a time and place that’s beaten you into shape and turned you into the kind of adult you eventually would become – you didn’t even know it then.
In Kieran Hurley and Gavin McNair’s Square Go, we contemplate this as we observe, and become a part of 13-year-old Max Brocklehurst’s daydreams. Daniel Portman (last spotted hanging out in Westeros) plays this “run-of-the-mill” schoolboy in a “run-of-the-mill” Scottish town (think all of Michael Cera’s quintessential roles). Max has been challenged with his very first “square go,” which he explains as “a fight, basically. Man to man. A go.” His opponent is “King of the School, Neanderthal knuckle-dragger” Danny Guthrie. We are let in on Max’s anxiety, which manifests as various imagined scenarios, leading up to the big moment, aka, when the school bell strikes at 3:30, for the supposed fight at the school gate.
For 65 jittery minutes, we become increasingly involved in Max’s inner world, as well as the shenanigans between himself and his best mate Stevie (Gavin Jon Wright), within a literal square that resembles a wrestling ring. And appropriately, the energy of play resembles the build up before a fight: everything is constantly moving, humming, buzzing. The air is charged in 59E59’s smallest black box but the liminal space expands to the scale of imagination.
Director Finn den Hertog creates a stage language for this production that’s both deliciously messy and austere. Ostentatious props and costume pieces with saturated colors signify character changes. This brings me to another standout point for the show: Wright is chameleonic in the array of distinct characters he embodies, from Guthrie (with a wrestling mask and a voice changing microphone), to Max’s estranged father (perpetually drunk). In his characterization of Stevie, Wright also brings out the awkward sincerity of the endearing weirdo, constantly chewing on a strawberry lace (a type of candy). Both performers being clearly adults, they don’t pretend to display the childishness of the 13-year-olds they’re embodying, but rather commendably present the characters in a sincere way.
The play captivates you quickly without a trace of self-indulgence. You can’t help but relate to the seemingly ordinary protagonists. I’d compare it to Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie in its almost breathless rhythm and visceral energy, and the wacky aesthetics of Kick-Ass, or Scott Pilgrim vs the World. It’s theatrical in that it embraces the surreal and challenges the audiences to use their imagination.
There is something extraordinarily tender and vulnerable about the piece, as you watch the boys expose the truth of their inner worlds, and eventually, you become witness the moment when they grow up, even if just a little bit.
It’s also important to note on the piece’s production design. Peter Small’s acrobatic lighting, Martha Mamo’s expressive props, along with the atmospheric underscore composed by members of the Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit compliment each other and add much to the production without upstaging the action.
It’s a piece worth seeing and is highly relatable for everyone who’s experienced an awkward childhood, and perhaps remembers a moment when they’ve “grown up.” After all, we’ve all been challenged with a “square go”, whether with a peer, a particularly difficult task; after all, the process of growing up is just a string of unexpected moment when you have to face off against your own demons.