Image: Still from Peter McMaster: 27

In a little over an hour, these two talented performers say as much or more about contemporary masculinity as a whole library shelfful of sociological tomes

Peter McMaster’s “27” is a theatrical piece which springs from a young man’s intimation of mortality as the milestone year of 27 is reached and survived. Why 27? Because that is the infamous age at which a whole galaxy of stars have met their end.

To be honest, from a late baby-boomer perspective, my first reaction to reading the preview was: “You’ve got to be kidding”. When you get to the time of your life when you’ve already been to the funerals of some of your contemporaries and those that are left are beginning to slip into various kinds of dementia and other ‘long term conditions’ – THEN you might want to reflect on a potential visit from the grim reaper. But 27? … Really? And while we’re on the subject, I read in the BMJ ages ago that, to put it bluntly, the whole “27 club” thing is all basically nonsense anyway. Obviously.

But luckily, when McMaster and his friend and co-performer Nick Anderson brought “27” to Colchester Arts Centre the other day, it was ‘pay what you like’ night. So I thought “well, why not give it a try? Maybe these two precious sounding millennials will have something interesting to say. And anyway, it’s only an hour-long”.

So I went. And, like the other forty odd people in the audience, I was treated to an extraordinarily engaging, utterly enthralling exploration of friendship and family and what ‘growing up to be a man’ can mean. And on the way, we enjoyed tracks from some of the club, including Hendrix, Joplin and Winehouse.

From the very start, in a performance area artfully made redolent of death and cremation, the two performers establish themselves as a pair of complex, vulnerable (but above all thoroughly nice) young men. Their somewhat different life-stories are cleverly juxtaposed by the telling of the most simple tales and brief statements, all of which are delivered with a subtle and very effective sense of comic timing.

The simply yet beautifully written wordplay is cunningly interspersed with some highly energetic movement. Is this dance? I don’t usually like dance…. But these two clash and grapple like Graeco-Roman wrestlers on a museum vase. And then rough and tumble like a pair of puppies on a sandy beach. And “ouch” – some of that stuff must really hurt! Like when the All Blacks slap themselves before a rugby match.

But those thundering slaps are very much part of the story. Because the show is about confronting, understanding and celebrating the strange mixture of hyper-competition, mickey-taking, empathy, pushing-and-shoving, mutual support, vulnerability, camaraderie and love that have combined to produce their particular styles of ‘generation Y’ masculinity.

Anyone who has dipped into that classic of the ‘men’s movement’, Robert Bly’s “Iron John” or the more recent (and fascinating) “Man Up” by Colombian American performance poet Carlos Andrés Gómez will recognise the list of themes being aired. How a determined stiff upper lip also trembles with all-too-often unexpressed emotion. How the testosterone fuelled public bragging of teenage boys becomes the shy politeness of the anxious sexual debutant, as soon as a bedroom door is closed. What is it with men and violence? The difficult journey from an idealised (and dangerous) male self-reliance towards a more fulfilling and life-affirming brotherly interdependence. The daily expression and suppression of masculinity through the display and regulation of mens’ bodies (and, specifically, mens’ genitalia – be warned!!).

Slightly unusually in the world of performance art, “27” has a strong narrative content. It is a genre (or, I suppose, a set of genres) often dominated by an emphasis on the creation of mood and atmospherics. But here we also have surprisingly dense storytelling. The two emerging autobiographies are full of incidents and vignettes – some funny, some sad, some enigmatic. But, above all, often deeply moving – a feeling enhanced by the ‘in the round’ setting and the extremely close proximity of performers and audience.

In the next few weeks, “27” is being staged in Norwich (June 14th) and Manchester (June 20th and 21st). My recommendation: get along if you possibly can.