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Yen

Jake Davies as Bobbie and Alex Austin in Yen at The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Since Anna Jordan won the Bruntwood Prize back in 2013, she’s had two other plays staged, Freak and Chicken Shop (in London, at Theatre 503 and the Park Theatre respectively), works which both in their way unpicked the psychological and emotional impact of living in a highly sexualised culture.

In Yen, teenage brothers Bobbie and Hench have lives which have been shaped by absence. They lack anything resembling stability and, though they have known love, their mother is an erratic presence, neither boy is in school, and they seem to have no friends. Though they are poor it is this lack that matters. They spend their days playing video games and watching porn. At the start of the play there is no food in the house and they are down to sharing a single T-shirt between them.

They do at least have each other and Jake Davies’ Bobby and Alex Austin’s Hench capture the quick shifts of sibling relationships, the fraternal shorthand, their little jokes and codes, their protectiveness of one another.
While the premise is undeniably bleak, there is also warmth in the writing, affection as well as aggression. Davies is brilliantly puppyish and energetic as Bobby, forever tearing around the stage; his character is supposed to be 13, yet he is simultaneously both younger and older than his years, while Austin in contrast is all sharp-cheeked awkwardness as the older of the two. The scenes of his growing attraction to new neighbour, Jennifer are tenderly played. “I don’t know how to touch you,” he confesses.

Director Ned Bennett came to attention in 2012 with an exquisitely tense revival of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, another play with two brothers at is heart. While Yen lacks the hothouse quality of that production, there are moments of deep unease here. The play hinges an act of violence, which we never see; Jordan instead explores the build-up to and the fall-out from this moment, successfully trying to imagine a context where such a thing might be understandable if not any less brutal or appalling.

Bennett has chosen to reunite with the creative team from his atmospheric production of Pomona, and designer Georgia Lowe pairs battered sofas with a wall of floodlights, which lighting designer Elliot Griggs makes flicker as the boys spend hours immersed in Playstation games or gazing at scenes of anal penetration.

The play feels less sure-footed once the boys’ world has been blown open. Though the performances remain strong, a chemical shift has occurred and these scenes feel a little more functional than the filthy vivid dialogue of earlier. But while a few narrative cracks appear towards the end, it remains a gripping, compassionate and confident piece of writing.

February 18-March 7, PN February 19

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Verdict
A gripping and compassionate play despite the bleak theme
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