The venue for Oh Man – an hour-long performance riffing on modern masculinity devised by Hetain Patel with the youth company of Manchester’s Contact theatre – is strictly secret, but when we arrive at an old car garage I think: of course! Patel, a genre-straddling, Bolton-born artist has made several works about and with his car-mechanic father, and also channelled multiple masculinities in his solos American Boy and American Man. It all figures.
If the themes are Patel’s, the material is not: the piece was developed through the conversations and testimonies of the young performers themselves – seven men and seven women, aged 18 to 25 – and of local groups including a boys’ club, a fathers’ project and a support group for older African and Caribbean men. Some of that range is represented by the three open cars in the garage forecourt, respectively containing the burger packets and drink cans of a lads’ night out, the baby seat and knitted toys of a young family, and the hanging jacket and notes-to-self Post-its of a business executive.
While cars form the frame, it’s the fresh and breezy live performance that drives the piece. Scenes fly by: a haka dance of belligerent posturing; locker-room banter that shows its comedy and callousness as well as the vulnerability it covers; an increasingly upsetting litany of the everyday sexism the women have experienced; a brashly comic quiz show with a man-hater, a control-freak and a mansplainer as contestants.
The composite structure has the breezy feel of a social-media feed: jumpy, crammed with snapshots and one-liners. But the cumulative picture is of masculinity as a constant performance in which actorly utterances are set against physical facts: one young man declares his individuality while being swept away in a sea of bodies; another jumps lightly and brightly in order even to mention the “heavy stuff” of mental illness. The final “masculinity MoT” leaves the whole group running on the spot like engines in neutral, forever trying to pass a test that everyone can see is bogus – even as we register the sweaty exhaustion and sputtering breath of their continual failure.