Boys is the coming (or avoiding) of age story of a group of friends who, whether enrolled or not, behave like feckless and drug-fuelled university students. Over the course of twenty-four hours hedonism and heartbreak brew and themes of friendship, politics, sex and suicide swirl around in a somewhat overwhelming brain soup. The play may be titled Boys but it is the women that stand out.
On an unusually hot summer’s night, Benny and his band of compatriots – a punk, a prodigy and a poet – drink to the end of an era. With revolution and resolutions the order of the day, and time quickly running out, Benny just wants to fix everyone’s problems – and ignore his own demons at all costs. Amidst a sanitation strike in Edinburgh, the garbage keeps mounting, but there is more than the smell of rotting rubbish hanging in the air. Nostalgia soon turns to soul-searching and division as everyone’s dirty laundry is aired one last time.
Boys is the coming (or avoiding) of age story of a group of friends who, whether enrolled or not, behave like feckless and drug-fuelled university students. Standing on the precipice of graduation and relocation, success or failure, the group must choose to face the fall or shut their eyes and walk away. Over the course of twenty-four hours hedonism and heartbreak brew and themes of friendship, politics, sex and suicide swirl around in a somewhat overwhelming brain soup.
The show is billed as a dark comedy about suicide. Intriguing as that sentence is, it isn’t particularly true. The comedy is largely slapstick or infantile, and like in real life, suicide is referenced obliquely, anxiously avoided. The piece is about far more, and far more successfully explores the immense pressure and pain of potential. Potential that is lost, gained or never fully realised. It shows a crisis of youth, particularly (and unsurprisingly) of young masculinity and the desperate desire for everything to just be OK.
The show’s scope is admirable if not necessarily achievable. To list all the things the show is about would require bullet pointing, and some elements – e.g. the nannification of the British state, attacks on neoliberal ideology – clearly deserve their own play or platform. This sprawling scope acts to reduce the potency of the central act: cloudy timelining and subject avoidance keep us from engaging with the suicide, especially with regards to Mack and Soph’s dilemma. Rambling as undergraduates often are an authorly ear would have cut thirty minutes from the running time and slimmed clunky references to folklore, history and academia. Hickson is an incredibly intelligent writer and sometimes this wears a little thin: allegory and pathetic fallacy weigh down the show’s already potent drama, poetic flights of fancy jar with the banality of the group’s usual banter.
Whilst from a ‘new writing’ perspective everything works a little too well, the standard Hickson sets herself is extremely high and her writing shines in monologue form. Although clunky, the play’s poetic moments belie a better writer than the Fresh Meat style that the first act in particular falls foul of. The majority of dialogue is well observed and despite being overlong the action moves forwards at a relative pace.
The cast form a close and responsive ensemble. There is an ease not often achieved to “group chat” scenes where each finds him or herself a real purpose of being there, if only to loiter and avoid the real world. Some of the duologues feel a little exposed however fault here lies with Hickson for laying the emotional foundations of the characters and their relationships too late in the day.
Alexander Bird navigates well as the play’s moral compass Benny, a timid and anxious lionheart. Benny has several large jumps into high emotionality that Bird scales competently, however he feels a little self-aware of the jumping to exist solely in these moments.
Luke Farrugia employs a distinct and different style in his performance as Cam, the quirky child prodigy. His character allows him to play more, both with his voice and his body, giving him the air of a much drier Kenneth Williams. A beautifully observed monologue at the end of Act One is confidently delivered and it is perhaps his character who is best suited to relish in the poetry of Hickson’s writing.
Ross Kernahan as Timp is a whirling, snorting, chip off Russell Brand’s old block, down to the effeminate gestures, excessive swearing and partial (and partiality for) nudity. This effusive and surface deep style creates a stumbling block however in that any moments of emotion are simply delivered as eloquent Scots declamations rather than with any real heart.
Henry Bauckham succeeds in Mack’s pithy soundbites of millennial despair however otherwise feels miscast. It is difficult to know whether it is Bauckham himself or his character who struggles to engage emotionally with his best friend and girlfriend, offering nothing but sheepish grins and awkward scratches to the back of his head.
The play may be titled Boys but it is the women that stand out. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain shines and reminds of a young Natalie Cassidy, versatile and malleable, comedic and tragic, tearing up and tearing her way through the role of ditzy motormouth Laura. It takes an intelligent actor to play simple so well and with such heart.
Jenna Fincken’s Soph is a commanding and demanding presence. In the first act she brings a much-needed maturity to proceedings. Wearing her heart on her sleeve in the second, she reaches admirably at the lofty heights of Hickson’s writing, vacillating – like many young people do – between hard partying and sheer vulnerability.
Thacker’s direction is solid and straightforward. Logistically and emotionally it must be a little like herding cats but Thacker successfully breaks each moment down into bite-size chunks. This is admirable but sometimes a little uninventive and time consuming: the world does not wait for one argument (or line, even) to be over for another to begin, and the building sense of mania is often castrated by an underlying orderliness.
Mark Magill’s set is a thing of beauty and revulsion. With general undergraduate detritus swamped by a dozen or so uncollected bin bags, it is highly realistic and surprisingly thorough. There’s a stolen shop sign, perennial Christmas lights and the occasional marijuana sticker slapped on cupboard doors. A crumbling cornice meets curtains that look leftover from whichever old lady died to vacate the flat in the first place. The design navigates the shape and space offered by the stage particularly well, giving us everything including the kitchen sink and a hallway from which we see characters wait, hope and watch in secret.
The costumes are convincing: oversized and interchangeable they are a testament to the swappable slapdash uniform of university life. Some particularly dire t-shirt designs and semiotically lazy fancy dress choices (Peter Pan for thirty year old Timpson) are forgiven by the knowledge that the manchild really is such a transparent creature.
In this text heavy play opportunity for music is minimal (or at least, minimally explored). Generic, whiny male pop-rock is the perfect reflection of the self-indulgent students, and there is a bittersweet arrangement of The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time that helps neatly tie the play together.
With so much going on, and with so much petulance and egotism, it’s difficult to sympathise. We feel for individual components – particularly Laura and Benny – but the Plight of the Intolerable Manchild is pretty tough pill to swallow. These are overgrown boys with feelings too big for their bodies. No one is dealing or managing, just running away or hiding from the facts. Hickson purposefully provides little light at the end of the tunnel – and we are more aware now than ever of the discussions needed around emotionality and masculinity – however the overriding feeling leaving the theatre is one of heavy mess.