Saw a gem of a play at Theatre 503 last week. Ali Taylor’s Cotton Wool is about two teenage brothers, Callum and Gussie who have just lost their mum. It begins with them standing on a beach in their funeral suits swigging cans of nicked lager, somehow both simultaneously boys and men, alone in the world except for each other.
That is until Harriet arrives. She is from England and wears lots of black. She has been abandoned by her feckless father but pretends that doesn’t bother her. Though she is initially hostile to the brothers’ crude attempts to endear themselves to her (“are you a vampire?” Gussie asks when his chat-up lines are rebuffed), she starts to form a tender friendship with Callum. This makes Gussie jealous, as he is both attracted to Harriet himself and envious of the hold she has on his brother. He is also convinced that he can see a body floating out to sea; he talks a lot about the ‘selkie folk,’ seal spirits from childhood stories, and becomes convinced that his mum is still out there somewhere, drifting in the dark.
Cotton Wool is a touching and, at times, quite beautiful piece of writing. The brothers’ heavily accented use of language is often very poetic and there’s also much humour in their dialogue, which prevents the grim nature of the story from becoming too intense and overbearing. The simple set manages to capture the grit and mist of the coastal location perfectly.
The mythic overtones were laid on a little thick towards the end, I thought, but this is small complaint. The acting is spot on, especially from the boys, from Joseph Arkley and Owen Whitelaw as Callum and Gussie respectively, and it’s tautly directed, a good fit for the space. But while the play was set in a grim and chilly coastal Scottish town the temperature in the Battersea pub theatre was, as ever, a tad more tropical – so, while the characters complained of being freezing, there was much sweating and fanning going on in the audience.