I’m sure that any of us working in a customer service job remember the cringe-inducing pain of having to deal with the quirky and unusual regular characters who pop up in your place of work seemingly just to steal your time and energy. Third Pier Theatre’s My Esteemed Friend brings to the stage Writer-Performer Daniel Hird’s experience of this anguish, which soon becomes more than just an inconvenience. As Daniel starts to receive letters from a mysterious regular called ‘The Professor’, he begins to wonder how the man got his address, and embarks on a mission to uncover the cryptic trail of mysteries left behind him on the internet. My Esteemed Friend is a sensuous labyrinthian playground of light, frenzy and intrigue. At it’s heart is Hird’s charismatic and commanding central performance, which leads you down the garden path and through the looking glass into this true story.
A handheld bar of LED lights sits ominously baring the audience down on the stage. We’re soon to meet its’ wielder, who uses the bar to shine light and colour onto the bizarre series of events that is about to follow. As Daniel introduces the circumstances that see The Professor enter his life, the twists and turns it soon undertakes would be completely juddering if it weren’t for the steady hand at which Hird keeps the pace. The light takes on forms of its’ own – becoming a torch light, his date for the night, and a vindicating glowing light that guides him to the Rock of Solitude, where he contemplates his relationship with his parents. It soon becomes clear that the piece’s introspection, the story of the Professor and Daniel’s own potential brief glance at becoming a Father blend into a reflective philosophy about how to approach our familial relationships, the people we want to keep safe and the people who give us a reason to be here.
The mystery surrounding the Professor is weaved around Daniel’s life story, which is one many young people will be familiar with – moving out, falling in love, feeling unsure about what the universe has in store for you and how you can get where you want to be. It is a jarringly honest mode of storytelling, in the sense that Hird opens himself up completely to the audience – his perceived flaws, how he got to where he is, and his newfound passion to protect the family he is trying to establish. Alongside this, he recounts letters he received from The Professor, and in a moment of manic frenzy how he ended up becoming just about as obsessive about The Professor’s past and mystery as was true of the inverse. The Professor laments about ambition to Daniel, and we soon see how it twists Daniel’s psyche toward the fringes of sanity.
The creative designs in this piece are utterly illustrious. Director-Sound Designer Zoey Barns has put together an incredible set up which emboldens Hird’s performance. Besides the bar of light, the piece has an immensely complex web of soundscaping and piecemeal audio recordings snapped from major films. There is an immense cinematic quality about the whole event, not merely in the fact that Hird reveals he worked in a theatre and is obsessed with the world of acting. Within that web of sound, Hird prances, dallies and strides across the stage in a catatonic bonanza of movement sections. As The Professor’s letters are read out, with Serial Killer-esque soundbites from films used to recount them, Daniel snaps and pops his body into motion. Erstwhile, as he climbs the Rock of Solitude he leaps and dives around the stage. It is his playground across the hour, and as the chess pieces come together we see something truly extraordinary unravel.
The piece has a beautifully profound sense of itself and establishes a unique perspective on life that is bordered both by abstract philosophy and humane compassion. Hird never preaches, but the fact that he spends so much time discussing his own life and motivations may prove one of the more contentious elements of the piece among the audience. The line between honesty and indulgence is thin in performance – I definitely sit more on the “enjoying the honesty” side with my own viewing as it is clear Hird is playing a heightened version of himself. It may, however, feel quite alien to others to hear someone’s personal philosophy relayed in such blatant terms. Equally, the piece sometimes draws narratively scarce material from one of its’ two strands (Hird’s family life vs. The Professor mystery) to progress the other plot-wise. A bit of tightening up here in the script to connect the two together may help unlock its’ philosophical impact.
My Esteemed Friend is absolutely electric – bathed in magical mystery, raw and honest in its’ ties back to the real world. Hird will transport you somewhere other-worldly, and you’ll never come back the same.
Recommended Drink: My Esteemed Friend is a rich and peaty Whisky, pungent yet slick.
Performances of My Esteemed Friend have now concluded at Prague Fringe. Keep up with the performers online for future performances.