Lack of order and fear of change are themes introduced from the onset of Ella Hickson’s ‘Boys’, ably directed by Molly O’Cathain. Amongst the tableau of excess in a hedonistic student flat is an atmosphere of brooding menace, of uncertainty and unaddressed issues and questions. The future looms outside the window, in tandem with the refuse strike that causes bin bags to pile up both in the flat and hallway, blocking exit and entry, an ongoing reminder of stasis. Trivial arguments about refuse prices yield to deeper underlying hurt; frenetic drug-fuelled escapism eventually crumbles to reveal that six individuals are each caught in a flux of struggling with and succumbing to their own personal stases: different versions of fear of the future, life after graduation, coping with grief, refusing to grow up. A lot is tackled in two hours, and the play’s ongoing revelations require the audience to view it in a variety of new contexts, but the cast made these transitions accessible and engaging. As an ensemble they gelled remarkably well. Particularly excellent were the time lapse party scenes, where both cast and set allowed for the complexity of three ongoing interlinked storylines to pan out without any aspect feeling crowded or undervalued.
The tension between all the characters was excellent, as were the individual performances. Richard Durning excelled as the fearful yet striving Benny, Tom Rosengrave simmered as the darkly meditative Mack, and the uncertain Cam is played with palpable vulnerability by Matt Armitage. Carys Wright’s charisma as the easygoing Timp carries each scene, Aoife Leonard’s Laura is as endearing as she is brave, and Georgie Polhill portrays the complexity of Sophie’s troubles with astute understanding. The authenticity of these performances produced an incredibly inclusive atmosphere, aided by the brilliantly immersive set. Wry attention to individual details such as a defaced Nirvana poster, tier of beer cans and scattered tobacco combine to produce a vision of student hedonism that seemed almost comically genuine. Clever touches added the to the veracity of the whole experience – the audience was seated on couches and mattresses and placed tickets in an overflowing apartment post-box before entering the performance.
As traditional elements of the absurd creep their way in, the surreal presence of the ‘outside’ and references to ‘They’ beyond the flat lend to the air of paranoia and fear terrifically maintained by the cast. The tension intensifies as the shifting role of the flat as either safe zone or prison is cleverly explored: the characters watch the vague violence in the world outside from their apartment window, eerily detached from its actuality. We get a sense of the chaos outside the flat, and the piled up bin bags serve as representatives of psychological baggage. Near the close of the play, after a frantic fight amongst the unbearably accumulated rubbish, Benny’s cry of ‘It’s still here!’ rings emphatically in the sudden silence.
Poignant, bleak, but with notes of hope, ‘Boys’ is definitely a play to see – brilliantly cast, astutely directed and performed with frantic energy and vitality until the tentatively hopeful finish.