Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Boys, Soho Theatre

Review: Boys, Soho Theatre

To get to Neverland, it’s second star on the right and straight on until morning. Alternatively, hop on the M1 Northbound, find a student flat and head through ‘til dawn. Here, Ella Hickson’s lost boys are staving off adulthood as best they can in a pre-graduation flurry of Coco Pops and pill-popping.

This ill-equipped generation of unfortunates – arriving at the Real World™ to find the door slammed shut – is, of course, Hickson’s specialist subject and it would have been easy to greet another such play with a ‘been-there, done-that’ yawn. However, in Boys, she has reached its apotheosis. It is the most multifaceted analysis of that generation’s situation and mental state on stage to date. It makes her previous efforts on the subject, Precious Little Talent and Hot Mess, look like preparatory exercises in an artist’s sketchbook.

The student flat, its kitchen buried underneath pizza boxes and washing up, is “sort of a crèche, sort of a stable, sort of heaven;” a toy-world, in other words, where the party never stops, it just catches its breath.

Mack and Benny, realist and idealist, are on the cusp of graduation. Neither of their flatmates are students: Cam’s a talented violinist, Timp’s coasting through the university of life as a waiter and recreational drug-user. The fifth resident, Benny’s brother, recently committed suicide, hanging himself in the kitchen to escape the seemingly impossible hand of expectation and recession this generation has been dealt.

All of the characters are defined by this dilemma in one way or another. Mack is cutthroat, Benny naïve; Cam is paralysed by pressure while Timp has given up on ambition to be a pig satisfied. Hickson is writing about a zero-sum game that’s ruining those forced to play.

It is this all-or-nothing attitude, born out of the switch from necessity to opportunity charted in Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love, that Hickson’s after. The heroic action is Benny’s attacking the Tartaran task of eating cereal with a two metre long spoon. Hickson sympathises with the uphill battle, but hasn’t time for those stood stock still staring up at it. When Cam speaks about meeting a nameless photographer who snapped Picasso one sees a solution. To get halfway up is not to fall-short, she suggests. It is not that life rolls downhill from 21, but that society’s view of age and success has warped beyond sanity and, indeed, safety. The key, Hickson suggests, is to come to terms with moderation, marrying contentedness to ambition.

The sense, however, is that the world has grown unscaleable; that, with the exception of the exceptional, individuals cannot succeed. Not for nothing does Chloe Lamford’s artfully constructed bombsite of a student kitchen contain a Coca-Cola fridge and a stolen Barclays sign. The latter smacks of Sherwood Forest student prank, but it has a far more tragic edge.

The main thrust of Boys is driven by the intrusion of that world into the safe haven of the student bubble. Hickson is smart enough to situate her microcosm in the wider world, albeit with a clunk or two that leave it feeling naïve by comparison to the internal politics. A rubbish-collectors’ strike means that rubbish is piling up and, when a riot flickers into life outside, the flatmates end up with a pyramid of refuse bags – some their own, some their neighbours – in their kitchen.

It’s a particularly strong metaphor – almost too strong, in fact, bringing connotations crashing into the room and leaving Hickson wrestling for coherence. In a single image, it shows us society as the nanny state we rely on and as a house of cards that only functions if everyone shares the strain. It speaks of responsibility, both personal and collective, of dumping on others, the absence of altruism and, at its widest, of consequences.

In the end, Hickson stakes her money on community and its in moments of togetherness – not necessarily charging down the riot squad, but cleaning the flat and rounds of tea – that she locates the play’s hopefulness. Occasionally it feels like she’s teetering on the edge of mawkishness, but the reason that Boys works so well is that you can feel her own uncertainty. Each of the Boys boys’ ideologies has its pros and cons; each insecurity, its sympathies and stupidities. Hickson turns a student flat into a Question Time bear-pit without letting the issues break the action.

It is the play’s schematic nature that holds it back, however, and Hickson ends up compensating for transparency by overstuffing. Is the revelation that boys will be boys until they become boyfriends really necessary or just another observation for the pyre? Hickson holds it together – and director Robert Icke and his first-class cast follow with a quickfire ping-ponging rhythm – by skimming along with frivolous banter that’s terrifically entertaining to watch and a couple of skeletons propped up in the kitchen closet that might just force these lost boys to grow up.

Photograph: Soho Theatre

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