There’s a lot going on in Luke Barnes’ Bottleneck. From poverty and classism to northern identity and, most importantly, football, the play tackles a lot of issues that characterised the experience of 1980s Liverpool. It does so with immense subtlety and grace, so much so that one viewing might not be enough to really get the play. Gritty Theatre’s latest outing is a good production with a fabulous script – one well-worth seeing – but it’s apparent that a really great production is lurking unachieved, just under the surface.

The potent mixture of bright characters, tightly-knit themes and unflinching intensity all make the show. They just needed a little more room to breathe.

Bottleneck is about the Hillsborough disaster the way A Tale Of Two Cities is about the French Revolution. It’s the culmination of the play, the focal point to which the narrative is building and the theming is emanating but it’s really just a device for talking about larger social conflicts, in this case rich versus poor, police versus labour organisers, Reds versus Blues and so on.

These intersecting social anxieties are relayed from the perspective of a child, twelve-year-old Greg, who just wants to go to the football match for his birthday. Greg doesn’t fully understand the situations he’s in; he doesn’t grasp, for instance, why the police have such a tense relationship with his father but his naiveté gives the audience a very clear frame of reference for what the script is dealing with which contributes to both the subtlety and unique character of the play.

As a revival of a one-man play, much of the success of this production depends on the strength of the actor in charge. Dominic Thompson gives a performance of incredible energy; Bottleneck is a demanding show in terms of focus and elasticity and Thompson tackles it with aplomb, a laudable feat of stamina. Every action is precise and self-assured and transitions between characters are slick – good technique is on full display here.

Thompson, however, doesn’t quite stick the landing; when the stakes are raised in the final third of the play, his performance fails to adjust. He doesn’t take the time to feel what Greg feels and as such the big emotions – fear, sadness, anger – don’t have the weighty punch the script demands. Part of this feels like an issue of pacing; it’s more common that a show moves too slowly but Bottleneck ran under its allotted slot by about ten minutes which felt it could have used.

Beyond that, one or two other small flaws break the immersion. A few directorial decisions are head-scratchers, such as the comically falsetto-pitched voice of Greg’s best friend. Additionally much of the blocking was done without enough regard for the audience – a few members in the first row found some costume pieces landing on their shoes half-way through the play. This can probably be attributed to a first performance but little things like that make a big difference in such an intimate show.

Gritty Theatre gets what makes Bottleneck so incredible. The ingredients are all there – the potent mixture of bright characters, tightly-knit themes and unflinching intensity all make the show. They just needed a little more room to breathe.

Reviews by Jared Liebmiller

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The Blurb

'Am I a virgin? I think I am. I mean, it went in her, but it was floppy and it wasn’t very nice, so I think I am a virgin. I'll say I am – it'll look better on me uni applications.' Liverpool, 1989. 13-year-old Greg has an extraordinary tale to tell you. He lives on a council estate, has just started secondary school and earns pocket money sweeping up muzzie hair in a barbers. Liverpool FC are everything and, on his birthday, he defies his dad to go to see his beloved team play for the first time...