After a week in which our rulers have blithely exposed how isolated from us they are by their wealth, it’s at least a vague silver lining to note that this is the year the anti-austerity play seems to have come of age.
If Gary Owen’s brilliant National Theatre hit ‘Iphigenia in Splott’ presented its articulate, furious heroine Effie as a fiery avenger come to sear us for our indifference to the working poor, then Leo Butler’s ‘Boy’ is its flipside.
In an excruciatingly brilliant stage debut, Frankie Fox’s Liam is Effie’s negative, an inarticulate 17-year-old who doesn’t know what he wants and doesn’t know how to get it. Instead he drifts through London like a ghost, seeking out people and places he half-knows – because he doesn’t really know anyone. When he has to he speaks in a garbled approximation of the Jafaican patois used by the cooler kids – more a series of verbal tics to help him blend in than the tools to hold a conversation.
I was a teenager once and ‘Boy’ is like all my most awkward memories crammed into a single hour. But it goes way beyond what most of us experienced. Liam’s extreme verbal and emotional inarticulacy isolates him. We never see his home circumstances, but Butler’s play leaves us in little doubt as to the wider reasons for his neglect. He mumbles something about his parents being on zero hours contracts, while in the bacground there unfolds a depressing, unloved patchwork of rough sleepers, sanctioned dole applicants and disabled people stripped of their benefits.
‘Boy’ is a forceful enough play that it felt off point to start by talking about the fancy direction. Nonetheless, anyone familiar with the name Sacha Wares will know all her direction is fancy. ‘Boy’ is entirely staged on a travelator that orbits the centre of the room, clanking with a mechanical rhythm that echoes London’s drab pulse. Though relentless visually stimulating – hordes of minor characters and interesting bits of scenery filter on and off in a blur of perpetual motion – it also feel like an installation that mimics the enervating monotony of trying to occupy yourself on the streets all day. There are moments when it feels a bit gimmicky – there is one very flashy, somewhat distracting visual effect used over and over. But ‘Boy’ has the substance to back it up, and a bit of razzle dazzle is no bad thing for a production clearly aiming to pull in a few real life Liams.
It’s not a play to make you feel good about the world. But it’s an audacious piece of theatre-making that’s does its bit through sheer depth of empathy.