Stealthily, writer/performer Sam McArdle sidles on to stage, phone in hand. You could momentarily mistake the casually attired man for a theatregoer attempting to negotiate a seat. He casts furtive glances over the audience, searching. An erotic anticipation seems to drive his body, until a sudden focus on an audience member clarifies he has been engaged in identifying his Tinder date for the evening. He then launches into a smugly well-worn but confident charm offence of which such dubious so-called macho authorities as Neil Strauss and Andrew Tate would be proud. Moving in and out of his conversation, he breaks down for the viewers his system. The audience laughs at his bracing asides, the audacity of his bravado. McArdle is a maestro in knowing just how long to hold an expression for maximum comedic effect, his pacing of a tossed-off withering remark expert. He wields sensitivity and vulnerability as manipulative weapons to woo women into bed, bulldozing over their more critical faculties. He is not above using his position as a manny to wealthy West Londoners as a way to soften perceptions and bolster sympathy all to benefit his libido. Sex is a game, “intense but not intimate”, as he states, nothing of consequence.

Credit: Gabriel Bush

A monster of ego and good times, he seems content to float on the surface. McArdle has an effortless charm and an easy athletic attractiveness that works well visually for his character. It doesn’t take any convincing to accept that in most cases he will be able to get away with questionable behaviour and outrageous statements given his ingratiating smile, vocal lilt and physical gifts. He drifts into his alternative line of work not out of any virtuous intent, but because it offers an easy way to get by. He can flirt with the mothers and play with the kids and not have to stretch himself much beyond the superficial. He will not be called out on any failings. 

It is in his interactions with two individuals that ‘The Manny’ will have a late-stage reckoning with himself. Acting as prisms through which he will have to confront uncomfortable truths and deeply buried insecurities, he is challenged in just how far he is willing to go in self-awareness. So profoundly lost in internalised tropes of masculine behaviour, he may be just a void. But he will be forced to see himself, for good and ill. His latest charge, seven-year-old Michael, is a troubled product of a broken home, searching desperately for a father figure. He speaks in a clipped, anxious cadence. His loneliness and dread are well-pronounced, unnervingly visible. The forwardness stirs an apprehension in the Manny, destabilising what has been so soundly locked away. His determination to teach the boy harsh lessons of loss and failure (a game of tennis becomes a particularly nasty bit of education) verges on the abusive. He clearly identifies aspects of himself in Michael, which both intrigues and frightens him. There is a great bit at the beginning, his first encounter with Michael, where the Manny realises he may have met his match. A war-game determinably progresses into a battle of wills and one-upmanship, neither side backing down, playing loose with the rules, imagination running wild. A devastating defeat for Michael on a sports field motivates, quite beyond himself, the most compassionate, selfless response from the Manny the audience witnesses all evening. In his actions, he may be healing himself, or correcting a past moment where a crucial intervention was not forthcoming. Without properly understanding, the Manny has bonded with and grown fond of Michael. There is real alarm and panic when Michael goes missing on a park outing, McCardle’s mask of cool slipping.

With Molly, a purveyor of beetroot brownies at Borough Market, the Manny gets drawn into a new social life of community improv and self-enlightenment. With her encouragement, the Manny steps out of himself, bold enough to take up guitar and sing in public. In keeping with character, one eye, of course, is forever focused on impressing her. There is the particular distress of Molly’s partner and her disapproving best friend, a woman the Manny unfortunately ghosted previously. He is moved when Molly seeks his advice on a guitar for her nephew, the two spending a cosy afternoon shopping. In their developing social relationship, there is the possibility of attraction, a spark. Despite her outgoing personality, Molly reveals her own disappointments and doubts. A failed actress, she admits feeling adrift, unanchored. Molly is lost in her own specific ways. There is a blowup between the Manny and her associates, a fairly ugly exchange at a club that sends him spiralling. When Molly admits that she has accepted her boyfriend’s offer to move to Australia with him, the Manny reacts as a child would react, with sour vengeance. He is volcanically hindered by an emotional immaturity. He is unable to vocalise coherently or plainly his naked hurt and sorrow so destroys any chance of reconciliation with a final conversation that is unequivocally vituperative and shattering. Just when the best and brightest of himself was being coaxed out, he childishly extinguishes it, a ruined Peter Pan. He cannot bring himself to exhibit vulnerability. 

Credit: Gabriel Bush

McArdle was indeed a Manny for a three-year period. One can only hope he was more informed than his fictional counterpart. On evidence of this work, he is certainly more thoughtful and contemplative. He sprinkles in personal facts amongst his three lead characters (like Molly, he was informed quite suddenly by his agency that he would never be a successful actor and subsequently dropped). This piece can be seen from one perspective as a satisfying form of comeuppance. McArdle serves it up with sharp instinct and candid revelation, unsparing and unfiltered in his examination. He is consistently a charismatic mess. Any empathy may diverge keenly along gender lines. Tragically, his closing statement may not speak well of the ability of men to ever reach the highest form of self. The Manny has, after the promise of progress, fallen backwards into pitiful routine, resigned to regressive cycles. He is going nowhere, marooned by his own worst instincts.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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