David Eldridge’s hymn to the 1980s, written in 2006, is a huge undertaking. It requires a large cast playing multiple roles to bring to life Romford’s historic street market. In Nicky Allpress’ production at the tiny Union Theatre, there are almost as many performers barking sales patter and brutally bantering as there are audience members.
Into this melee comes Boy, a shy 13-year-old (Tommy Knight) whose mum makes him find a job on a shoe stall to get him out of the house. Shown the ways of market life by the stall owner (Andy Umerah), Boy transforms from a tongue-tied teen to a full-blown trader as the economy staggers through boom and bust.
As a microcosm for Thatcher’s Britain, Market Boy wears its politics lightly. Eldridge’s vivid dialogue takes primacy over character and plot in portraying a specific place and time. In Allpress’ production, the nostalgia and noise are ramped up to an almost overwhelming degree, although Adam Haigh’s choreography keeps the onslaught of bodies seamlessly moving through the space.
Knight and Umerah manage to shine against Justin Williams’ overstuffed but deliciously accurate period set. There is a memorable turn from Mat Betteridge as The Toby, too, but a lack of time and space reduces the rest to caricature.
While this production is packed with colour, fun and wit, it’s hard to see what Market Boy has to say in 2019, except to remind us that the 1980s was a decade of good tunes, bad fashion and awful sexual politics.