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Review: Boy @ Almeida Theatre

This review was originally written for West End Frame

The Almeida has hauled the gnashing, award-winning Robert Icke away from Chekhov, Ibsen and Greek Tragedy for a month or two, and returned to the coal face of new writing. Boy, Leo Butler’s play about growing up in contemporary London, is an impressionistic 70-minute portrait of a lost generation, performed in the round on a constantly shifting conveyer belt of bus-stops, tube stations and drop-in centres.

Frankie Fox is Liam, a 17 year-old wandering the streets of North London, stuck in the hinterland between school and life, between GCSEs and p45s. He stumbles around the stage, bumping into a host of others, none of whom show him the smallest crumb of empathy. He is a crushingly tragic figure, bereft of friends, desperate for company, but cripplingly unable to communicate with those he encounters, masking his discomfort with a barrage of ‘cool’s, ‘yeah’s, and ‘wicked’s.

There is the brisk GP (Wendy Kweh), only interested in the ever-lengthening queue outside her door. There is the irritable mother of his erstwhile schoolmate (Sarah Niles), uninterested in his problems and wary of his influence on her son. There is the job centre employee (Abdul Salis), unable to help him because of his age. Everywhere he turns, he is met with slammed doors and rejection. The only person who pays him attention is the local drug-dealer (Mohammad Amiri), whose interest in him is decidedly suspicious.

There is little plot – Liam just meanders from stilted interaction to stilted interaction. Like Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, Boy is driven by a series of authentically terse conversations, and it is what is left unsaid that is significant. This is an everyday odyssey of ringtones, oyster cards and half-finished sentences, but underneath all the mundanity screams an ugly, uncomfortable truth: Liam, like hundreds of others, is simply not equipped to handle life.

Sacha Wares’ direction is understated and undramatic. Together with designer Miriam Buether, he has crafted a production that drips with realism but that is richly symbolic at the same time. Like a luggage carousel, the relentlessly grinding conveyor belt rolls ever changing scenery across the stage, manned by a veritable army of stagehands. Mocking Billy Elliot cut-outs dangle overhead as an imposingly tall line of front-doors, bus-shelters and traffic cones parade around the helpless Liam. All of this points to a world that cannot, and will not, give comfort to its inhabitants. At times, the industry of the set threatens to drown out the performances, but for the most part, the ever-present rumble merely provides the backing track to Liam’s long day.

The beauty of Butler’s play lies in its openness to interpretation. Is it a brash two-fingers to a government that has forsaken non-achievers? Is it a cruel comment on a society that has lost any shred of sympathy, that can stride past the homeless without a glance? Is it a Pinteresque philosophical contemplation of our inability to adequately express ourselves? Perhaps it is all of these. Perhaps it is none.

4/5

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