Set in a sandbox (a symbolically apt location for a tale of how we're shaped and formed), and making use of puppets and an otherwise quite simple set, A Little Bit of Pain Never Hurt Anyone charts the growth of Billy and Jess, a girl and boy whose friendship reveals and challenges the way the roles we're given shape the people we become.
Britt Lewis as Billy, and Julian Dipley-Hall as Jess, are excellent. Their performances are evocative and heart-warming, with important touches of comedic relief. Brendan McDougall's writing is complex and nuanced, and doesn't give answers easily away. But if you pay attention, there's a lot to be gained here. McDougall cleverly observes the way the language of adults infiltrates children's conversations: how they mirror and echo, and play out adult anxieties, in ways that seem naïve of their parents' realities, yet far more aware than any parent may realise. Between expletives, Billy innocently rattles off what it takes to be a "strong independent woman", and Jess proudly reveals that his dad's a "degenerate". Through their play, we learn a great deal about the children's broken homes, the way their own parents have struggled with relationships and parenthood, and, particularly, how social constructs - gender, primarily - restrict and constrain them.
It is these little subtleties that we see take root in Billy and Jess, who, as adults, carry the unconscious weight of their parents' expectations and traumas. As the play moves from childhood to adulthood, it is clear how fraught Billy and Jess' relationship is, not only with the things they've inherited, but their owns fears that becoming their parents might be inevitable: "It's not our fault that I'm me and you're you, it's theirs." The two must now come to terms with their own impending parenthood, and attempt to set themselves free from the roles they've found themselves in.
The play moves fluidly between adult realities and childhood fantasies, so we're never really sure if this is real life or if Billy and Jess are still in that sandbox playing at being grown-ups. But, while the structure is at times disorienting, it is effective in creating space for contemplation. Is it possible to break away from the cycle of inherited anxieties and gender expectations? And, when our own time comes, do any of us really feel up to the task? Or are we all still just children playing in a sandbox, spouting big words that make us feel strong? It is an effective message, and one I was thinking about long after I'd left The Arch.
The abstruse structure may not appeal to all, and the ending remains relatively bleak. Nevertheless, if you like complex, well-performed, heartfelt drama, support independent theatre and head to Holden Street for A Little Bit of Pain Never Hurt Anyone.