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Yen review at the Royal Court, London – ‘hits like a fist’

Jake Davies in Yen at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Jake Davies in Yen at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Richard Davenport

Yen is a play with a deep wide wound in its middle; it builds and builds until it breaks. Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood-winner – which arrives at the Royal Court after a run at the Royal Exchange’s studio space last year – is a fist-like piece of writing.  Its touch is not the subtlest but it is effective, and when it hits, it hits hard.

Teenage brothers Hench and Bobbie have led lives defined by absence and lack. Not just in terms of material things, but affection, support, care. They’ve known very little solidity. Their mother, a chaotic drinker and a diabetic, has never been someone they can rely on and now she’s moved out to live with her new boyfriend. The boys have dropped out of school and spend their days playing video games and watching porn.

The relationship between the two brothers is the play’s greatest strength. Their banter is often incredibly funny and is full of little detonations.  It’s impeccably delivered too, by Alex Austin and Jack Davies.  Austin’s is a performance of quiet and containment. Occasionally he gets this dark far-away look in his eyes. Davies, in contrast, is garrulous and puppy-like, young for his years. There’s a volatile quality to both of them, the potential to erupt like a shaken-up can of lager.

The boys’ insular curtained-off world is punctured by the arrival of new neighbour Jennifer. From the moment she walks into their flat, it’s clear that at some point there will be an explosion.  Ned Bennett’s production feels tauter and more confident than it did at the Royal Exchange. The interval has been ditched and this really makes an impact.  Bennett also further confirms that he’s a director who really understands tension, how to wind things tighter and tighter until you can almost feel the pressure sitting behind your sternum. Georgia Lowe’s design is incredibly effective too. Her set resembles a climbing frame and the space is occasionally flooded with light. A three-bar fire glows viciously in a corner, a stand­-in for the boys under-­fed dog – a great, growling thing they’ve called Taliban – itself a symbol of all the things the boys keep locked away.

The last few scenes, while providing a necessary release, feel less sure-footed and the play loses some of its power once Jordan steps outside the brothers’ flat.  Though compellingly played by Annes Elwy, Jennifer is never as convincing as the two boys; some of the more heightened lines also sit uneasily in the characters’ mouths. There are some utterly heart-twisting moments in here though, when Hench confesses to Jennifer that he has no idea how to touch her, not with tenderness – intimacy is clearly a language no one has ever taught him.

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Anna Jordan's Bruntwood-winning play hits like a fist.