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Published on Monday, 12 August 2013

5 stars

Pleasance Dome (venue website)
31 Jul, 1-12, 14-26 Aug, 12:10pm-1:10pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Set in the not-too-distant future, this entertaining but thought-provoking play imagines a world where anyone can change their gender: overnight, as often as they like, and with no ill-effects at all. But cleverly, it’s pitched at the moment of transition, when being male is losing its meaning but males still have some advantages in the world. It opens the way for an intriguing piece of theatre, which strikes the difficult balance of being morally thought-provoking and delivering an approachable plot.

Specie specialises in a gentle kind of subversion, which extends out from its concept and into its script.  More than once, I frowned at what seemed to be a hackneyed plot device, only to find myself abruptly spun around as the storyline morphed into something else entirely.  At one point, for example, we learn of a song called “In The Vestry” – telling the true tale of a young man, confused by his sex change, seeking guidance late at night from a Catholic priest.  What do you think happens next?  You were almost certainly wrong.

A small-scale but stylish production, Specie achieves a few striking images – including a glorious one which they save for the very end.  More than that, though, it’s just pleasingly quirky, with dance-like scene changes and occasional incursions from an electric guitar.  There’s some very odd lighting during a crux scene, with a distracting red beacon shining right into the audience’s eyes, but that’s really the only significant criticism I can find.

The cast has no weak links, and between them they conjure up some finely-imagined characters – from a group-session facilitator who likes to be at the centre of everything, to an excruciatingly irritating mother who seems to think that “Indian Ocean” is a fundamentally racist term.  The humour is sold well and disarmingly realistic, but the more serious parts of the script are effective too: look out for the couple quarrelling over the best start in life for their child, or the monologue near the end, giving two alternative versions of how that child’s future life might go.

And it was only right at the very end that I understood Specie’s greatest triumph.  By inviting me to imagine changing my sex – to imagine inhabiting a body of a gender I don’t call my own – it gave me, for the very first time, some personal insight into the complexities of gender identity in the real world.  It only skates the surface of that hugely complex topic, and it would be folly to suggest I left with a proper understanding of all the issues involved.  But it’s a start: and for that underplayed, unobtrusive analogy, Specie’s a play that truly deserves to be seen.

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