Boys, Soho Theatre

Thursday 31st May 2012

Boys. Photo: Bill Knight
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They say that men, at whatever age, never leave the playground. We are told that boys will be boys. But what is this kind of infantile masculinity really like, and is there anything new to say about it? Ella Hickson’s latest play kicks open the door on a group of students and youngsters living in an overheated Edinburgh flatshare, and catches them at a crucial point in their lives. At the moment, they plan to party. But what will happen after they sober up?

Let’s start with their accommodation. It’s not a bad flat: there are five rooms and only four boys. It’s a bit grubby, but you’ve seen worse. The point is that they have now finished their finals, or are already staring to work, so it’s time to get wasted. It doesn’t matter that have already spent the night off their faces. It’s time to get the booze in, select the tunes, and dance. As the party slowly gets started, we rapidly get introduced to Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam.

Benny is grumpy and nursing a headache, Timp works in a restaurant and sports a pair of pants with Spank written on them, Cam is a youthful violin prodigy on the verge of success and Mack is the bad boy, cynical or realistic by turns. At first, they live up to our expectations: the stories they tell in this quintessentially “me and my mates” situation pulse with sexual exploits and hedonistic joy. It’s an atmosphere soaked in the dregs of beer cans, old fag ends, and lit up in the shiny light of pills, spliffs and cocktails. Lights flicker, we laugh, we groan, we want to dance.

But if these boys begin by just being boys, led by their cocks, ruled by emotional illiteracy, things don’t stay like this for long. Hickson is too perceptive a writer and too astute a dramatist to play one string when she has a whole violin. Various nuances rapidly arrive, especially in the shape of Laura (Timp’s Scottish girlfriend) and Sophie (the ex of Benny’s brother). And Benny, it soon emerges, is more sensitive than the others, and gradually we find out why.

We also feel a growing impatience, almost disgust, that Timp and Mack’s sexual infidelities remain a secret. This is a play in which there are several skeletons hidden in the kitchen cupboards of this scuzzy flat (lovely design by Chloe Lamford). And boy, do they come tumbling out. And while Mack and Timp seem to embody the worst aspects of retard masculinity, Benny and Cam are much more complicated. Benny’s hurting, his desire to fix other people’s lives and his quiet determination to pick out the truth provide the dramatic tension.

There are also memorable speeches about the consoling nature of belief, lectures on the morality of having sex with teen girls, dismay at the pressure to succeed, a vision of being a good mum, a memory of falling in love, and a great demonstration of relativism by means of plastic cups. Hickson also provides a window on the wider world, where a strike by council binmen has resulted in a pile-up of rubbish, itself a powerful metaphor for the state of youth. Meanwhile, police vans are gathering, and a riot breaks out. It feels as if the testosterone-fuelled feelings of the lads are mocked by the greater violence of the streets.

Boys premiered at the HighTide Festival earlier this month, and is a co-production with Rupert Goold’s Headlong and the Nuffield Theatre. Although director Robert Icke is too inexperienced to catch the exact rhythm of the story, his cast is impressive, especially Danny Kirrane (Benny), Tom Mothersdale (Timp) and Samuel Edward Cook (Mack). But as well as being about hormones, rivalry, loyalty and bravery, this is also a piece that occasionally gives urgent voice to the desire for change, for growth, for maturity. If Icke can’t quite navigate the twists and turns of the final part, this is still a play with heart as well as balls.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk 

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