“I want to go to Sports Direct”
The august surroundings and let’s face it, the regular clientele of the Almeida wouldn’t immediately make you think it but Islington – the London borough in which it is situated – has the second highest level of child poverty in the nation. The wealth of somewhere like Barnsbury is barely a stone’s throw from deprived areas like the Bemerton Estate and its an issue which simply isn’t getting any better as evidenced by the horrendously out-of-touch approach to wealth of the current administration – “I obviously can’t point to the source of every bit of money…”
Someone who has no choice but to know exactly where every penny is coming from is Liam, the protagonist in Leo Butler’s Boy. Aged 17, he’s got no job, no cash, no motivation and worst of all in this digital age, no smartphone. Emotionally constrained by his teenage inarticulacy, he opts to wander out from his native South London to set off on a journey to try and connect with an old schoolfriend and en meandering route, he encounters a city at its coldest, finding painful isolation even in the most crowded of streets.
From girls he tries to chat up to friends’ mothers he can’t sweet-talk, policemen who won’t turn a blind eye to rough sleepers who want him off their patch, Boy captures so much teenage awkwardness that it is hard to watch at times. Caught in a bureaucracy overly concerned with sanctions and withdrawing benefits, there’s no respite in social situations as he’s got nowhere to go, no-one to see. We don’t find out much about Liam’s domestic situation but it is clear that he’s suffering from emotional poverty as much as financial, his silences speak volumes.
As Liam, Frankie Fox makes a stunning stage debut. He thoroughly inhabits all the expected teenage reticence and stroppiness but in his abortive attempts to converse, to connect, you get a powerful sense of the impossibility facing him, of a society into which no clear route can be identified. It’s a chilling realisation, one it might have been easy to pass off glibly but Butler and Fox ensure that it is seared onto our minds, to leave this theatre without considering deeply the injustices of the world is to quite frankly abdicate your responsibility as a decent human being.
On a slightly lighter note, Sacha Wares’ direction takes a predictably adventurous approach as she reunites with her creative team from Game which also transformed this theatre. Here, Gareth Fry’s sonic cityscape is an inescapable urban hum and designer Miriam Buether sets the entire production on a constantly trundling travelator, on and off which a world of props are moved to create bus stops, offices, tube carriages, waiting rooms with the assistance of a hard-working crew of stage-hands.
Such tricksiness in the staging does have its downsides though in being occasionally rather distracting. I suspect this will vary depending on where you are in the theatre but from my vantage point right at trackside, it was impossible not to watch the finer details of both the stagecraft – such as trying to work out exactly how the actors were managing to sit down as if in mid-air (akin to the living statues in Covent Garden) – and the staging – how on earth did they find so many old-style Sainsburys shopping bags?!