Boy takes place on a winding conveyor belt, with actors and props spinning before the audience like dishes at an especially dour branch of Yo Sushi. What starts out as a sexual health clinic becomes a bus stop then a housing estate then a park then a street outside a nightclub. Often several conversations take place at once, fighting for your attention, most involving futile attempts to push back against an uncaring, unforgiving system.
It follows Liam, a disillusioned 17-year-old trying to navigate the world after leaving school. He has no qualifications, no social skills and no prospects; he’s hungry and horny and angry and very, very lost. He has a vague idea that he needs to meet friends at Sports Direct but, without a working phone, Oyster card or sense of geography, this is a major undertaking. His journey is an epic trawl through the world of London’s forgotten and dispossessed, a kind of 21st century Ulysses in which the city is as much a character as the various down-and-outs Liam stumbles across.
The production, unlike its characters, has no shortage of ambition: it’s packed with bells and whistles and clever embellishments. The conveyor belt is a sharp metaphor for a young man being borne listlessly through life with little understanding and even less control. It’s made even more surreal by its actors’ habit of lounging back on invisible chairs or reclining onto invisible beds, achieved by hidden leg-braces that clip into the stage.
But these theatrical accoutrements paper over the cracks of what, underneath it all, isn’t a great play. It’s a little too keen to shoehorn in references to escalating house prices and zero-hours contracts, and while the yoof-speak its characters communicate in is good for a few laughs (“you’re Cillit Bang; whiter than white!”), it’s never particularly convincing.
Liam’s story is one of the most important of our time, but this isn’t a definitive telling of it.
First published in City A.M.