The stage of the Fringe one-man-show can be a high, vulnerable, and exposed parapet and never more so when the performer – in this case writer and co-creator Anthony Johnston – is wearing a nappy and mooning us with his glitter-spangled backside.
Tenderpits is primarily about homosexuality, structured loosely around the central protagonist’s psychogeographically resonant journey from his native Canada to find sexual and emotional awakening in the American Dream. Its premises and conceits can be well-founded and many sections are ingeniously delivered. Things begin promisingly, for example, with a beautifully choreographed routine in which a symphony of computer game motifs evoke the masturbatory pleasure of Johnston hammering one off in a sleeping bag – kitsch, arresting, and oddly beautiful.
But the play as a whole struggles desperately to convince us of its presence, its cohesion, or its too-finely balanced artistic weight. In part this is because its structure lacks purpose, the best bits coming off a spider diagram of psychological motifs, whilst the narrative passages are somehow both ludicrous and laborious. More fundamental, however, is the play’s attitude towards its own vulnerability. Whilst Johnston is keen to expose his body and most sordid thoughts, he takes preventative measures against real emotional engagement. Every word of monologue is sheathed in crude rubber irony, creating a piece of theatre that is unconvincing largely because it seems insincere.
Worse still are the attempts to shock and offend, which feel unearned and unrewarding when they work and when they don’t are perfunctory and uninspired. One segment in which Johnston compares himself to Jesus offends for being lacklustre before one can even be bothered to think it sacrilegious. He has nothing like enough bombast to carry off the ‘Jesus is a man in a nappy’ routine that made Jerry Springer The Opera so controversial. Nor does he have the linguistic or conceptual majesty of Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, the play that sets the bar for infantilised depictions of gay desire. Any flasher has the ability to shock; it takes a sculptor to question why something might be shocking.
Tenderpits is heavy-handed, slow-footed, foul-mouthed, and soil-bottomed. Its ending presents a reconciliation that could at last make the show seem tender – but by the time we get there, the whole thing has already been shoved inelegantly under the arm. As Fringe theatre goes, it really is the pits.