Review: Salford’s Tom Gill performs Growing Pains @ Edinburgh Fringe

Photo Credit: Underbelly Edinburgh

Photo Credit: Underbelly Edinburgh

It’s taken me a few days to find the right words for this show. I wasn’t even meant to see or be reviewing it, but after catching it by chance up at that there Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve been pressed by an urgent need to talk about it.

Salfordian actor, singer/songwriter, and spoken word artist Tom Gill brings Growing Pains, a Battersea Arts Centre commission, to the Underbelly stage for this year’s Fringe festival. Growing Pains blends all of Gill’s talents into a momentous journey of urban teenage anecdotes about Salford lads, a Northerner cutting his teeth in the capital, and a man finding himself at a spiritual crossroads while haunted by his troubled past.

The craft and storytelling throughout Growing Pains is an impressive collaboration of words, music, and performance. Regardless of which element resonates with you most, each is offered with a sense of raw vulnerability and honesty. The character, which we assume is largely autobiographical, has faults and baggage that don’t immediately reflect upon him too kindly. This is important: Gill is looking at himself critically and, like a metaphor he proposes, isn’t done growing just because he’s older. He is a stalwart performer throughout, even when the Jamaican accent of his best friend slips into Irish, Gill responds in a moment of instant opportunistic humour, “Oh, didn’t know you were suddenly Irish?” Adopting this genuine approach, rather than just ploughing on through the moves of the show, endears us to Gill and his story, and this sense of honesty pervades throughout the whole piece. The work left ego out of it and is instead concentrating on the experience of telling this story the way it needs to be told.

We all know and understand ‘spoken word’ as a genre, but ‘spoken word theatre’ feels slightly more difficult to pin down. I’ve seen some shows that were essentially structured and considered set lists which hark at the idea of a theatrical narrative.  Whilst some successfully explore and manage narrative, others can feel a bit gratuitously curated. Growing Pains feels like one of the most successful spoken word theatre shows to be made thus far. Its writing ebbs and flows in complex waves between a poetry set, poetry as part of a narrative, and elements of character and narrative building. Its performance is outstandingly convincing and engaging, evoking a much more direct and intimate experience. Imagery visually and linguistically sprouts from within this piece in a mature and organic way.

The show interestingly starts with a precedential “And…”, hinting that we’re going to spend our time here playing a little bit of catch up with the nuanced complexities of this story. This experience reflects how we might try to understand ourselves – how, when we do infer rare glimpses of ourselves with clarity, we can do nothing but embrace it, warts and all. Refreshingly, Gill’s self-portrayal isn’t a snapchat filter of naval-gazing hagiography. Rather this feels like a gritty soul-search, isolated, and bereft of guidance. This is the self-directed human in crisis. In some ways, we’ve all felt like that, lost and alone. It does this with humour and dignity, allowing it to extend its reach beyond ‘artsy’ circles to instead be a story for anyone. Thinking back to the type of lads summoned by Gill at the start of the work, this is a piece not just about them, but also for them.

What this piece does, then, is remind us to take the reins of our own chariots. To stop looking for others to decipher the burgeoning future of our present circumstance, but instead be strong and brave by being kind and vulnerable, soft and grounded. It isn’t until the show is over that we realise (or at least try to) what Gill’s just done. It isn’t trickery. Not smoke and mirrors but a moment of understanding that left me genuinely breathless .

If you’re at the Fringe, I would strongly urge you to see it before it inevitably tours, because I predict tickets will be hot. For more information, see Underbelly Edinburgh’s website.