What is a community centre for and, indeed, what makes up a community in the first place are the themes explored by Mayem Productions in their latest devised piece Better Days.
Better Days begins in calm and ends in calm. Inbetween, it's sweaty, loud, funny, and fresh.
Five very different but equally damaged men have come to value their use of a small space in the local community centre where they spend their time writing angry, whimsical and downright nutty poetry which they then shout at each other.
The self-styled leader of this band of bardic brothers, Julian (Jonathan Parlett), is a nervy, narcissistic fellow, intent on getting his 'pupils' to use poetry to help heal their wounded selves, as he bounces around the stage like a ball of suppressed rage and thwarted ambition.
Nick (Goldie-lookalike Steve Larkin) is a wide boy; all gold chains, fake Rolexes, armfuls of tattoos and a nifty line in wringing fivers out of the other members of the group as a fee for them simply being there. Is he exploiting them? You bet. But he also needs the space himself.
He's on... ooooh.... about fifteen children, give or take an unborn one or two ('They don't count!') and is by far the most grounded character in the piece. Although that isn't saying much.
Then there's Magic Arthur (Frank Leon), a drunken magician who refers to himself only in the first person. His nose permanently in the air, hips swaying in the breeze, he seems a purely comedic character until children and CRB checks are mentioned in throwaway lines that are slightly disturbing.
Sebastian Swallows (Max O'Donoghue) is angry. He's also an idiot in sweat pants and a silly hat. His face contorts into all sorts of unhappy grimaces but he's really just an innocent who clings to the centre because, you sense, he has no clue how to live out in the real world.
Grey-haired handyman Tom is the only calm male character, occasionally chipping in the odd cryptic comment about his dead wife Brenda, but is he really part of the group or just a bloke who has to hang around the place because he works there? Having uttered the most odd non-sequiturs, Tom disappears from the second half of the play, but you sense he's going to be back.
The quintet's self-contained little world is blown apart by a visit from Siobhan (Claire Armstrong), a person attached yet apart from the community centre. It's her job to ascertain what these men get out of the place and, more to the point, what the centre gets out of them.
Working for the mysterious Zolar she asks the fundamental question: 'What do you actually DO here?'
They blush. They bluster. They run workshops, they say. They all run different workshops which all the others attend.
Prove it, says a not unsympathetic Siobhan. So they set about giving it a go in the only way they know how: with unalloyed desperation.
We find Swallows channeling Guru Colin, a mysterious man he met in Liverpool, in his 'Find Your Inner Animal' workshop. Again there are undertones of abused childhoods and we perhaps see a pattern emerging, but nothing is made explicit. There is also much emphasis on friendships being 'NOT GAY' in very big speech bubbles.
Swallows inner animal isn't very far from the surface. One minute he's a comedy bear, the next he's screaming the most profound line of the piece: "Without this centre I'm just a man in a fisherman's hat!"
And without the centre, what are these men? They are centreless, in both senses of the word. Would they be able to function in real life without the protection of their little community womb? Would they even be friends?
Friendship is the problem in this play. Each character seems so self-absorbed that even when they do interact with each other very little of it seems meaningful.
They talk to each other, but no one REALLY listens, thus undermining the piece's theme of community and community spirit. Ultimately they seem to be a collection of characters put together in a room to talk about themselves, and we're not given more than tiny hints of what made them the misfits they so surely are.
Better Days is undoubtedly funny in places, and does have some excellent lines ('Community is about people coming together and doing shit'). Magic Arthur's mischievous yet infuriating presence is quite wonderful, and the actors fill the tiny stage with a psychotic energy, but the plot is just a little too sketchy and the themes not fully played out.
A heavy handed 'red tape' metaphor towards the end just doesn't work and isn't funny, while the day being saved by handyman Tom's trick petition can be seen as just plain lazy plotting or, being generous, as a genius masterstroke as it's literally the dead souls of the community that save the living ones: the very ultimate in 'community spirits'!
In the end it is Tom who has the most to lose if the community centre is taken away from the very people who use it, the piece nicely looping back to its opening scene with Tom pottering around, talking to himself and knocking a nail in here and there.
Better Days begins in calm and ends in calm. Inbetween, it's sweaty, loud, funny, and fresh. Not perfect, but certainly worth a look.