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Boy review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘high concept yet compassionate’

Frankie Fox in Boy at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Frankie Fox in Boy at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Nothing much happens in Boy. But then that’s point: how daunting the smallest things can be when you don’t have the tools to deal with the world. Liam, the 17 year old protagonist of Leo Butler’s compassionate play, tries and fails to visit Sports Direct on Oxford Street. He tries and fails to make conversation with some girls; he has a furtive wank in a park. Over the course of the night he encounters rough sleepers and policemen, drunk posh girls, doctors and officials who never really hear or see him. He’s painfully inarticulate and socially isolated. He doesn’t have friends and we get little information about his home life. Poverty is clearly a factor but poverty takes different forms.

Director Sacha Wares and her creative team – designer Miriam Buether, lighting designer Jack Knowles, sound designer Gareth Fry and choreographer Leon Baugh – previously worked together on Mike Bartlett’s housing-crisis-human-safari play Game at the Almeida, transforming the space into a kind of bird watchers’ hide. Here they’ve arranged the audience around a travelator which is in constant motion throughout the production.

It’s hard not to spend the first few minutes marveling at the mechanics of it, the choreography and the precision timing required to set each scene up. Props need to be loaded and unloaded, bus shelters erected; the travelator becomes a tube train, a doctor’s waiting room, the walkway of a council estate. The soundtrack is studded with clanking sounds, machine music, and to top this off the actors do this thing where they perch on invisible chairs – it’s very a distracting thing, a gimmick too far. But Leo Butler’s play is robust enough to survive this high concept approach (more so than Game) and there are many moments in this 21st century Gertler Merry-Go-Round that are exquisitely realised, the sense of the city and its polyphony.

What Boy shows so acutely is how narrow and limited a person’s world can so easily become when it is characterised by lack. The journey from West Norwood to Oxford Street becomes a quest worthy of Indiana Jones if you don’t understand the distances involved, have no internet access, no working phone, no money for a tube fare. It also shows how the people most at the mercy of systems stretched to snapping point by austerity are those least equipped to challenge them. At 17, not old enough to qualify for help he probably would struggle to access anyway, Liam has few options open to him.

It’s a difficult thing to write inarticulacy, a harder thing to act it convincingly, but Frankie Fox, making his professional stage debut, gives a performance of real skill and delicacy. Liam is vulnerable but he’s also defiant, prickly yet acquiescent. He has sudden flashes of anger but most of the time he just parrots things back at people or tells them what he thinks they want to hear. Fox nails each hesitation and each mumbled abortive thought. It never feels stylised. He’s both absent and present at the same time. He barely says a whole sentence throughout the entire play and yet he makes Liam visible, he insists on him as a person.

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Verdict
High concept yet also surprisingly human staging of a portrait of inarticulacy and isolation
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