Good set design can really improve, amplify and illuminate the themes and narratives of complex writing for the theatre. Sandra Goldman’s deceptively simple design for Boy, a new work from Anna Ziegler, is profoundly eloquent, and adds immeasurably to the texture of the work.

The action spans the years between 1968 and 1990. To the left of the stage is a formal space, perhaps an office or waiting room. There are two doors built into the back of the playing area, a couch, a lamp, a sort of coffee table, a single chair. It looks normal, domestic, unpretentious.

But above this simple, easily adaptable space, directly above, is an upside down not-quite mirror image of the furniture and objects in the playing area. Colours are different and some objects are similar, not identical, but there is a specific duality between the two spaces.

The impression is of a world that is both upside down and normal; an everyday experience and a quite extraordinary one; of things looking like one thing but being another. Goldman’s design sets up the key pulses of Ziegler’s play with stylish efficiency.

Twin boys are born to Trudy and Doug Turner in 1968. They contract a disease and the medical recommendation is that they both be circumcised. But the procedure goes horribly wrong and one of the twins, Sam, has his penis severed off completely. The distraught parents seek help from a Doctor they see on television and he recommends that they raise their boy as a girl, call her Samantha, and chemically and surgically alter his gender from male to female. Dr Barnes is a proponent of the “Nurture over nature” ideology.

 

00000B1The toll that Barnes’ advice takes on the Turner family (including the never seen but much spoken about twin, Stephen) is excruciating. Despite all the nurturing and the other interventions, Samantha just wants to be a boy, then a man. The gender she was born with proves dominant and true. Samantha is erased and Adam is born. Adam is sure it is right for him but will anyone else agree? Especially Jenny, a vivacious pretty girl that Adam wants to marry.

Ziegler has written an intense, profoundly human play which deals with big picture issues in a very powerful and unsentimental way. At 90 minutes, Boy covers a lot of ground in a short space of time. Every word is carefully chosen, each character sharply observed, each situation marinated in, sometimes quite lyrical, acuity. It is luminous and exacting writing.

Happily, director Lindsay Firman understands what a gift to the theatre Ziegler’s script is, and delivers a production which truly does justice to it. The pace never slackens, the jumps in time are easily followed, no attempt is made to play for sympathy or to gloss over the hard edges of these very real, very believable characters. Like a great conductor of a marvellous symphony, Firman marshals the best players and ensures the sweeping majesty of the whole while not overlooking the virtuoso moments along the way. Everything is entirely pitch-perfect.

As the ordinary working class parents caught up in a nightmare, Heidi Armbruster (Trudy) and Ted Köch (Doug) are quite remarkable. Armbruster seamlessly shows the anguish and hope of the mother wanting the best for her child. The moment she realises that Dr Barnes may have been wrong all along about what was best for her son is profoundly shattering. She encapsulates the hopes and fears of parenthood in direct and resonant ways.

Köch makes much out of little. He has much less dialogue than Armbruster, or so it seems. His Doug is a classic working man father, hard-working, taciturn, fond of a beer, and protective of his wife and children. He goes along with Dr Barnes’ solutions because his wife thinks it is the way of hope and because he does not trust his own instincts over a learned man of medicine. Köch conveys the cancer-like effect Barnes’ advice causes in him and his family with painstaking, mostly unspoken, clarity.

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There is a devastating moment when he finally breaks and expels Dr Barnes from their lives. Köch handles this with raw, repressed fury and you can feel the heat in his veins as surely as you can see the effort it takes his Doug not to thrash Dr Barnes to within easy reach of death’s embrace.

Equally devastating, but for very different reasons, is the scene where he visits Adam and has what might be their first real “father/son” chat. In lesser hands, that scene could be tiresomely manipulative, but Köch is entirely honest in the delivery, to very affecting ends. His real love for his son is profoundly clear as well as his permanent sense of failure over what happened to his little boy, something he berates himself about and which leaves its haunted handprint all over Köch’s Doug.

Together, Köch and Armbruster are believable in every way: as a couple, as parents, as people betrayed by their trust in a medical professional, as people bewildered by how to cope with and help their son, as loving, frightened and wonderful protectors of their family.

Rebecca Rittenhouse is also in winning form as Jenny, the spirited single mother Adam wants to pursue. She is beautiful and comes with a son whom Adam wants to parent. She may not be very well educated but this Jenny has plenty of sense and she falls for Adam despite knowing that something is not quite right about him. Rittenhouse imbues Jenny with sparkling life, and the careful, watchful gaze of the lioness when it comes to matters involving her son. Unafraid of directness, she calls Adam out on his stubborn evasiveness, with consequences that will change her life, and the lives of all of the Turner family, forever.

00000B3In a performance of glorious simplicity and finely judged maternal and carnal instinctiveness, Rittenhouse is sheer delight. Her final scene with Adam is both gloriously hopeful and catastrophically confronting. (Couples all around me were interlocking hands, holding each other, crying – the honesty of the performance was profound)

In some ways the hardest role in the play is that of the medicine man who fails everyone: Dr Barnes. Of course, he is no villain, just someone who completely believes in his own ideas and methods and who thinks that they actually benefit others. There are Dr Barnes types everywhere in the real world. They are the ones who think sexuality is learnt behaviour and that it is impossible to be born into the wrong body; that torture can change desire or instinct; that all behaviour is a choice capable of modification; that things are only black and white.

Paul Niebanck is masterful in this difficult role. He is helped a little by the fact his advice is given in the late 1960s, but it takes real skill to permit the audience any kind of empathy with this driven, self-constructed manipulator of other lives. Yet, Niebanck manages that: astonishingly, he ensures that Dr Barnes is not just a moustache-twirling villain of obsidian complexion. Just as the medical practitioner who severed Sam’s penis made a mistake, so too did Dr Barnes – and Niebanck demonstrates that subtly and surely.

He establishes a warm, paternal relationship with the Samantha that he creates and comes to loves. There is a scene where young, troubled Samantha begs Dr Barnes to let her come live with him, as if he is the only person in the world who could possibly understand her. It’s a quite devastating sequence, not the least because of the otherFrankenstein references which occur in the play. Samantha is the creature created by Dr Barnes and when she ceases to live, he suffers in real and carefully conveyed ways. Niebanck is faultless in a part which is difficult and exacting.

But for Boy to work, a truly virtuoso, bravura performance is required from Samantha/Adam – the role requires lightning fast changes of mood and character, switching from a pre-adolescent confused Samantha to a early twenties angry Adam often, with no help in the costume department. The character experiences every emotion known to mankind during the course of the play, and it’s a roller-coaster of total commitment, emotional evisceration and telling, bruising reticence.
Bobby Steggert is quite revelatory in the role, astonishing, powerful and completely convincing. This represents a significant step-up for Steggert, and he shoulders the leading man responsibilities with consummate dedication and utter conviction. Every moment of his performance is superb, finely judged, beautifully conveyed. It’s a career defining performance.

00000B4Steggert is very convincing as the struggling Samantha: he plays a young girl simply, to devastating effect. The transformation is total with the aid of any makeup. Steggert just becomes Samantha and then becomes Adam – and in both incarnations of the character he is unfeasibly convincing and committed. It’s acting in its purest, most supple form.

There are so many moments of savage power it is impossible to list them all, but especially astonishing are the scenes where Adam finally confronts Dr Barnes, where Adam introduces Jenny to his mother, where Samantha begs Dr Barnes to essentially adopt her; and where Adam listens to his father tell a story about a car ride when he and his twin were toddlers. And the final scene between Steggert’s Adam and Rittenhouse’s Jenny is immaculate, a triumph of dramatic storytelling and faultless acting.

This is a spectacularly good production of a truly wonderful and inspiring play. It is easily the best play Ziegler has written to date, confirms her as a major talent on the world stage, and ought to make her a real contender for a Pulitzer Prize. Sensational and insightful writing, combined with unbeatable performances and sensitive, unintrusive direction – truly wonderful theatre.

Do not miss it.

Six stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.