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Oh Boy: Is This Austerity Britain at the Almeida Theatre?

13/04/2016 13:00

Oh boy.

I watched Boy at the Almeida Theatre in London last night, and I'm not sure I've ever found something with such good intentions so troubling.

Leo Butler's new play takes a day in austerity Britain and zooms in on one boy. Kind of like a condensed episode of 24, except here Jack Bauer is a marginalised teen called Liam. He's not picking off terrorists; he's wanking on to trees.

I was keen as a runner bean to watch this play, because socially and politically engaged theatre makes me want to march to Parliament and go 'OI CAN I HAVE A WORD?'

Playwrights have nailed it and emotionally slain me when writing about the alienated and the invisible in recent years: Alexander Zeldin's extraordinary Beyond Caring and Anna Jordan's tender Yen both found ways to shed light on the daily stoicism of the people society is shafting by proxy.

And Boy does sort of do that, but it feels like the scale of its ambition comes at the price of the person it wanted to remind us of.

It's a live Hogarth painting of London today and we are following Liam. He's just mooching about - we are told very little about him. But what we do know is that he's alone. He can't really speak. He appears to struggle with writing. He doesn't have a smartphone. He picks up food off the floor. He doesn't have any money. And no one is really interested in him.

The fact that he seems like such a blank is not an authorial failing; the entire point is that he has fallen through the cracks to such an extent that he can't even imagine a future for himself. Against the huge canvas of a stage with a constantly moving conveyor belt littered with a stream of different characters, he is in danger of falling out of view, and that's surely intended too - because that's the reality.

But the amount going on sometimes results in a lack of detail that can undermine the play as a whole. There are beautiful, acutely observed moments that Londoners will know well: a man on a train carriage begging for money, someone with a briefcase bemoaning the fact that some people don't pay their train fares.

But characters, however minor, need to have desires, aims, likes, dislikes; here, there are so many that sometimes it feels like they don't, and they can fall into stereotypes. And that's particularly a problem when working class people are so rarely portrayed in our culture now; there's a duty to do it carefully and fairly.

To explain - there's a scene in a job centre where everyone is having a good old shout at each other. Clearly my experience doesn't speak for everyone, but the time I spent signing on I observed it being a bit more nuanced than that. Job centre employees can be dickheads, sure, but mainly they're pressurised bureaucrats on targets who feel helpless. Those signing on are frustrated, but are often so passive and worried that they'd be unlikely to externalise it. And I don't know if the crowds I hang with are just extra-genteel, but would a woman on the razz really practically beg to give a random dude a blozzer in exchange for drugs, even if she was tripping balls?

It hints at a contempt for one another that isn't really interrogated; we might all be busy and suspicious and increasingly atomised from one another, but we are complicated too, and there's an ugliness on show in the characters' interactions with one another that doesn't always feel necessarily justified or true. We've just lost legendary British playwright Arnold Wesker, and if anyone showed you can write about the working class in a way that doesn't shy away from individual human flaws whilst always offering dignity to your characters, it was him.

From reading the extensive, impressive interviews in the Almeida's programme for this play, it's obvious that Boy was the result of extensive research and a genuine commitment to making space for a conversation about youth poverty.

And in its tricky way, it does what it says it will: it gives us a forgotten boy whose life can't be romanticised. He's got nothing going for him, he probably never will, and that needs to change.

This epic moving fresco of a production is genuinely innovative and stunning, but it also means we lose sight of the humans inside that the play seems so keen to make visible. It can't be both big and small, and in all its thinking, its grandiosity, its vision and its devastatingly good intention, the noise can sometimes muddy the nuance, which is the one thing a topic like this really needs.

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