The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Westside Theatre Downstairs
4 October 2015
Sometimes you stumble upon theatrical achievements which are as devastating as they are inspiring, which make you re-evaluate what it is that “theatre” can be, can do. You don't expect to have such experiences in small theatres you have never visited off the main well-trodden Broadway avenues. But The Absolute Brightness Of Leonard Pelkey, now playing at Westside Theatre Downstairs, is such an experience.
A one-man show about the murder of a hapless, but eternally ebullient, gay teenager and the townsfolk who knew, loved, ignored, hated or worried out him, does not sound like the kind of material which could prove either surprising or elating, yet there it is. Directed with astonishing clarity and precision by Tony Speciale and performed with razor-sharp insightfulness and humour by the author, James Lecesne, The Absolute Brightness Of Leonard Pelkey, is a Harper Lee-esque character study which slowly but inexorably unpeels the flaws in a society which permits a child to face death simply for enjoying being who he is.
Lecesne has a winning charm and a cast-iron technique, so his spinning wheel presentation of a myriad of small town character types is absolutely engaging and subtly preaching. You never lose track of which character is speaking. He tells the tale in a beguiling way, never down-playing the atrocity at its heart but also, more fairly than is perhaps necessary, showing the humanity and humour in the positions of the other characters.
This is clever. The evil is clearly marked as evil, the good clearly marked as good. But just as clearly marked is the ambiguous, the not-so-sure. Humour and understanding are the tools Lecesne employs to carve out his vista, and a compelling one it is.
The murdered Leonard is described by his drama teacher, somewhat derisively, as a young man with an unsurpassed ability to express himself with jazz hands. A matron of the town wistfully recalls that she told Leonard to “tone it down” saying : “The nail polish, the mascara — maybe not so much. He claimed he was just being himself. All right, fine, but do you have to be so much yourself? He told me if he stopped being himself the terrorists would win. How do you argue with a kid like that?”
Indeed. And more importantly, why would you?
Lecesne's play does not tackle that question head on, but it certainly comes at it from the side. By showing the range of responses to Leonard's death around the town, Lecesne carefully paints a picture of an ordinary town, one where conformity, no matter how subtly, is approved over individuality. Not so much Everyman as Everywhere.
The audience is invited to consider whether that is the best way, even as they laugh contentedly at the progress in the case made by the diligent, dogged central voice, a hard-nosed cop, and the eccentric townsfolk he deals with.
At the end of the play only two things are certain: the reason why Leonard was murdered is undisclosed and likely never will be and the dogged Shakespeare-quoting cop has given up his badge. The case has seen the ending of a life and a career, albeit the cop has a new career as a roofer and is now happily married to the hair stylist who first brought the disappearance of Leonard to his attention.
Life goes on.
But the colourful Leonard has left his mark on everyone he touched and met. Some react differently to his loss; all remember it. Leonard's brightness is diminished by death, but it absolutely lives on.
In the programme, Lecesne remarks that audience members often ask him if the tale is true. It's not, but his audiences think it is. This, sadly, reveals the reason why the play needs to be seen: it's message of tolerance and understanding still has a long way to travel, even in a country where Freedom of Expression is the bedrock. The simple truth is that there is more support for the right to bear arms than for the right of a 14 year old boy to wear mascara and nail polish. And not just in the USA.
Lecesne’s skilful performance helps the true message get home. With only a handful of props and barely a set, he vividly creates a town of colourful characters, male and female – but none are as colourful, or as important, as Leonard.
David Babani happened to be on the audience – so, perhaps a transfer to the Chocolate Menier is on the cards? London should be so lucky.