“I came to realise forever is too long”
Belt Up Theatre played Southwark Playhouse last year and return there once more, this time with their show The Boy James, written by Alexander Wright and inspired by the early life of JM Barrie. Tucked away in a space created in one of the vaults at the rear of the building rather than the main auditorium, we’re guided to a cosy sitting room cum study dressed with faded draped fabrics and umpteen childhood toys and mementos by a young pyjama-clad boy, who with great enthusiasm encourages us to make friends with the people around us and play games like tag and I-Spy.
It is a thoroughly enchanting introduction into this world and perfect at drawing the audience into the child-like wonder with which the story is told. The comfortable cocoon of innocence is broken by the arrival of the adult world in the shape of James, Barrie himself, with his weary experience and also in the shape of another intruder who brings violence and sexual awareness to this world, really pushing home the message about the sadness of losing childhood innocence and the pain that the adult world brings with it.
But despite this immersive approach, The Boy James is a little too abstract to really truly engage. It is all rather ephemeral, the story especially, so there is no real focus to proceedings, no matter how atmospheric the environment. There just doesn’t seem to be much clarity in what Belt Up are trying to achieve here or at least in the way they are communicating it to the audience: this lack of focus means there’s no real drive to the production, it just sort of happens.
It is well performed though, particularly by Jethro Compton who is wonderfully endearing as Boy. James Wilkes’ James has a nice sombre gruffness and resolute stillness as the older character seeking to put childish things behind him and deal with the harsh realities of life, like the pain of losing a brother. Lucy Farrett, with a great entrance into the show, coped admirably with what comes across as a rather uncomfortably misogynistic role, especially as the ages of the protagonists are unclear. There’s some intrigue in trying to figure out just what the relationship between the characters really is and the immersive work is excellently done: Belt Up just need to work a little bit harder at ensuring that they have dramatic material that is strong enough to partner with it.