‘Trainers’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Trainers, Gate Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Alex Harvey-Brown

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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A post-everything shaggy-dog story, brought to weird, vibrant life

Sylvan Oswald’s ‘Trainers’ is titled this because the theatrical essay’s unnamed narrator – who you can take to be Oswald, although this is never made explicit – is fascinated by gym instructors (ie trainers), and how they can take the uncertainty out of life simply by telling you what to do to improve yourself. 

This confession feels pivotal to a show that seems to blend clarity and obscurity wilfully. For starters, what is a theatrical essay? The deliberately rambling introduction suggests the narrator is happy enough not being entirely sure. 

But at the same time, it’s a funny, self-deprecating, approachable introduction that does at least explain the nuts and bolts of what is going to happen in front of us. The two performers in Hester Chillingworth’s production – that would be Nicki Hobday and Nando Messias – are tasked with sharing and dividing the performance of the essay, frequently turning it into a dialogue between the narrator and his late sort-of boyfriend, Steven.

On a simple ‘what actually happens’ level, ‘Trainers’ is an erudite, shaggy-doggish piece of metafiction vaguely reminiscent of what a queer, dystopian Ben Lerner might write. Loosely speaking it follows the course of the pair’s relationship, which sometimes seems to be taking place in a perfectly recognisable world, but frequently lurches into something else: a world wracked by civil war, a world beyond gender, a world where everyone is really into arts and crafts, a world in which Steven is part of some sort of resistance movement. When Steven dies, his apparently terrifying parents come looking for his papers. These have been entrusted to the narrator, who must preserve them at all costs.

There is a huge amount of other stuff going on here, from a meditation on gender future to a consideration of the life of sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Sometimes it feels completely lucid, sometimes intentionally obscure. Often it feels like it might make more sense studied than performed.

And yet it’s performed gloriously: the slight, fey Messias and solid, straightforward Hobday are excellent in Chillingworth’s perpetual-motion production. They don’t so much act out the roles of Steven and the narrator as trippily illustrate their story, chugging cooking oil, falling down holes, shovelling back coffee granules, engaging in a hanging-from-the-ceiling contest and much, much more. In a sense, the production feels as much about the depiction of their partnership as Steven and the narrator’s. 

Which is perhaps to the good – Oswald’s text is always interesting, but never quite gripping, and as it winds its ways to its strange, cyclical conclusion, it’s the final haunting tableau Chillingworth creates with their performers that moves, beyond the words.

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