The Boy James is Belt Up Theatre at its very, very, very best. Alexander Wright’s writing is sinister and it is bravely directed by Dominic Allen. If this play doesn’t destroy you then you’re trying too hard to be… well, hard.
In a cosy little drawing room (tremendously detailed), we sit on the sofas or cushions, and we meet James. Then we meet the people sitting next to us and exchange tales of adventures. And then we have a really great game of wink murder. James is the cutest damn character invented since Winnie the Pooh – although I suppose he’d rather be an explorer like Frodo Baggins. He can be anyone he likes though because James has got the best imagination in the whole wide world. Young James has been on the biggest best adventures with old James. Are you getting a gist of the show now?
And then everything gets a little more dark and disturbing, because a little girl comes along. And she wants to drink James’ poison that makes you forget everything (i.e. alcohol) burn everything, and have sex with James. It’s extremely uncomfortable. You’re in the room essentially like sick voyeurs. And for all her wickedness as she tries to force James into adult things he doesn’t want to do, there is foetal, shivering, sobbing James. Jethro Compton is a stellar actor because I believed in him wholeheartedly. Everyone in the room had to share in his nightmare, and the physical and vocal stamina that must take is awe-inspiring. Older James is played intelligently by Dominic Allen; he never shies from the menacing silences and lets us endure them for as long as possible, and the pain he feels at leaving feels earnest.
So Young James must leave younger James behind as all boys do to become men. Now this is where the audience interaction turned very sour. Young James can’t read, so will an audience member read the letter old James left behind? Now that silence seemed to span out for hours as we willed James to know why this had to happen, but can’t volunteer knowing that – I at least – would probably break down in the middle of it. We watch James grow up in a viscerally distorted time span, and in this highly interactive, sensitive piece, all I want to do is reach out and hold James’ hand.
I can count on one hand the plays that have had a profound effect on me like The Boy James. This is a very rare, special piece of theatre. It issomething that creates: memories, reactions, interactions. I left the theatre and couldn’t get it out of my head. Even though I knew it was fictional, I cried for ten minutes straight because old James left little James. Belt Up took my childish willingness to believe in stories, then stomped on it with it’s big, fat proverbial theatre feet. A Younger Theatre’s readers are presumably at a similar crossroads in life between childhood and adulthood, so The Boy James should definitely strike a chord. Yes this is influenced by Peter Pan, but I believe it’s a better story because there aren’t any silly pirates or fairies, what’s terrifying is the harsh reality of growing up.
***** – 5 Stars
The Boy James is playing at C Nova until 27 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.