• Literature •
• The Arts •
• Theatre •
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton: 16 May — 25 May
Soho Theatre, London: 29 May — 16 June
Student life is ripe for caricature, and a first glance at Boys, which premiered at Southampton’s Nuffield before transferring to the Soho Theatre in London, suggests that Ella Hickson’s new play is about to ring the changes on archetypes we’ve seen a hundred times before. The set, designed by Chloe Lamford, offers such convincing student squalor that audience members seemed to shrink in their seats: some perhaps fearing for the hygiene and sanity of their own adult children, others recalling halcyon days in the university of grime. But this is a play that catches fire within minutes and burns more and more blindingly until its wrenching end. Temperatures literally rise in the world of the drama: the end-of-year sun shines, uncollected garbage gets out of control, tempers fray – and gifted, gilded youth can no longer win. Hickson’s script reveals an author who knows the speech of the young inside-out, but Boys never feels like a recording. Hickson turns up the volume on reality, channelling naturalistic dialogue into a plot so sharp that it’s distantly reminiscent of early Stoppard, though minute-to-minute the play’s raw, robust dialogue could hardly be more different.
The characteristic Headlong energy, which has animated a host of memorable productions, powers this one too. Such dramatic skill is essential in a play that draws heavily on archetypes: the central figure, Benny, is a brilliant scholar and a caretaker to his variously troubled flatmates, yet mined with a seam of psychic damage which is not rendered any less devastating to watch by its relative predictability. It is impossible not to realise from early in the play that Benny (subtly and movingly played by Danny Kirrane) is less balanced than he seems; Boys nonetheless succeeds in charting his long-delayed disintegration with a combination of psychological acuity and linguistic deftness.
Benny’s flatmates include the fragile enfant perdu, Cam, who wears musical genius like an anvil round his skinny throat (or perhaps like a profoundly unwelcome chastity belt); Timp, a frenetic, ageing Peter Pan whose role deepens surprisingly towards the end of the play; and Mack, the resident student nihilist, who insists that “How well you do doesn’t have anything to do with how good you are.” Of all the characters, Mack would be the most susceptible to critical mockery, but Samuel Edward Cook convinces as an already-weary individualist – magnetic, cynical, with an edge of unexplained threat. Mack voices many terrors: the belief that the younger generation no longer have any power over their destinies, that isolation and detachment are now the only possible reactions to a world which, though overconnected to the point of burn-out, nonetheless feels increasingly balkanized at a human level. We thought we knew how to live. Boys has at its heart the knowledge that we don’t know any more, and that the question of “how?” will hurt to ask, and it will hurt to answer – it will hurt, even, to watch, because beneath its artistry, this play is our lives.
Boys is a drama that hides its own sophistication under a veneer of crudeness and accessibility, but it repays careful attention at every level, and the function of music within the production strikingly exemplifies this. Again and again, Hickson’s approach is to initiate a joke, to intensify its effects by calculated repetition – and then to crush her own comedy underfoot. Music is unruly in Boys – loud, funny, seemingly inartistic – but it follows this overweening pattern, and, without spoiling the end, the sheer power attained by Tom Mills’ sound design in the closing moments is theatrically striking.
Ella Hickson is still a very new playwright, having first appeared on the theatre scene in 2008 (with Eight, which toured in New York and at London’s Trafalgar Studios). Her projects have come thick and fast since then, and an association with Headlong Theatre feels particularly appropriate for a writer whose stylistics match up so efficiently with the dominant Headlong style: namely, sparky and dynamic acting that never fails to deliver an intense emotionality. For all that Boys is trenchant and full of oddly topical sadness, Hickson’s comic gift mustn’t be undersold. Her peculiar strength is the ability to combine this talent with an acutely compassionate insight into the plight – perhaps insuperable; perhaps susceptible to healing, or at least to catharsis – of her own generation.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.