Johnnie Walker’s Redheaded Stepchild tells the story of Nicholas, a young boy whose father has just remarried and who has found out that a boy he had a vaguely homoerotic experience with at school has created a Facebook event called Let’s Beat Nicholas Like a Redheaded Stepchild. If Nicholas goes to school that day, he will be beaten up by a group of kids, but staying home will mean missing a big audition for a school play.
The first quarter of the play falls flat. Maybe it’s the awkward aborted attempts to explain gingerness (culturally, through the ages, et cetera) or that the acting’s a bit off or the jokes are a bit hackneyed — whatever it is, I couldn’t bring myself to give much of a damn about the beginning of the play.
But patience pays off. As we get into the details of Nicholas’s situation — his troubles at school, how people treat him for being not only ginger, but a nerd and a proto-theatre queen — the acting picks up, the story becomes coherent and attention-grabbing, and the jokes are more complex. Walker’s wit, comic timing and charisma prevail and the final three-quarters are both moving and funny.
Later attempts to explore gingerness are more successful, and we get an interesting exploration of ginger role models and stereotypes (they’re often thought to be either creeps or hookers with hearts of gold). The play also has an anti-bullying message, which is a tricky thing to do well — as important as the message is, plays against bullying have been done to death — but Walker manages to do it in a powerful, unique and nuanced way.