By turns funny and tragic, deep and superﬁcial, engrossing and alienating, Boys is a play that tries to do everything and very nearly succeeds. Set at the end of the university year, Ella Hickson’s play spans the 24-hours before four flatmates are going to be turfed out of their student digs. Half the characters are students on the cusp of graduating, fearful that life’s just going to go downhill from here on in. The others aren’t students at all and, although they cling onto every student lifestyle cliché, these characters provide us with an equally depressing insight into the stagnancy that is promised to those who refuse to grow up.
Ingredient by ingredient the production has it all, but there is something almost intangible that prevents it from working as it should. There is lots to commend: the set is quite glorious in its verisimilitude, the stolen ‘man working’ sign, half-full glasses from last night and bulging bin bags provide an almost exact replica of my own uni kitchen after a big night out. Boys wandering around half naked whilst the girls chirpily pull it together and manage to both look and sound human also rings quite a few bells. The personas we see here are sustained beautifully throughout, although the slightly frenetic feel of the cast’s press night nerves led to small touches of over-emphasis, meaning that moments were marred as my suspension of disbelief was attacked. Of a unanimously strong cast, Tom Mothersdale as Timp is particularly brilliant, inhabiting his character quite completely and with apparent ease. His relationship with Laura (Alison O’Donnell) is especially well-executed; I totally got why they work so well together but also how she is not quite enough, how much he cares for her yet also how he could behave so callously towards her. For the rest, although as individuals they are impeccably cast, something about how they come together as a unit made me unable to believe in them. Danny Kirrane as Benny had moments of weakness. I couldn’t quite believe that either he, or Lorn Macdonald’s Cam, could be quite the high achievers that their accomplishments suggested: neither seemed to have quite the presence of mind to have struck away from the flock, or the charisma to remain within the party group if their interests set them apart so obviously. However, Samuel Edward Cook was a wonderful brooding Mack and O’Donnell as Laura flitted in and out of insightful thoughts with commendable ease. Director Robert Icke has done a good job at pulling the very different personalities out of each character, making each wonderfully memorable in their own rights, but some things have been kept in from the script that feel just that bit too neat (the idea of the bin bags symbolising their state is one such obvious example).
By veering from comedy to tragedy and back again, weaving in and out of the meaning of life, youth, personal fallibility and social responsibility, and mixing the whole lot up within a hedonistic mix of sex, drugs and drum ‘n’ bass, it could be said that author Ella Hickson is trying to do too much. Throw in some student rioting, impassioned politics, guilt, dreams, cheating, suicide and lying as well – the juicy revelations from each character leading to the consequent breakdown of each person’s world – and it can safely be concluded that there aren’t many things this play doesn’t discuss. Rattling through every issue in the book has its problems; continually pulling its audience down different avenues means we are constantly forced to re-evaluate whether we buy both the writing’s representation of each of these issues, and the cast’s. The ﬁrst ten minutes in any performance are always a tense affair, as the writer and performers lay their wares before you; normally, after that nerve-wracking first impression-off, both audience and cast can relax into the performance a bit as the former wait to see where the production takes them. This production felt exhausting throughout: every time the play was re-framed in a different light I had to reassess the cast’s capabilities, thereby preventing me from wholly becoming involved in the action. Sure, analysis throughout the play is part of a critic’s remit, but I do think the to-ing and fro-ing between themes had a detrimental impact on the whole: I neither laughed uproariously nor wept nor felt the tension really hit me, and I think that’s because the play and production hadn’t quite decided where it wanted to go rather than because the themes weren’t there or the actors weren’t skilled enough. With a bit more judicious cutting, some closer focus on certain topics, and some better work on how the characters fitted together as a whole, the director’s creative role could have been instrumental in underplaying the faults that Hickson’s play has.
Boys is playing at the Soho Theatre until 16 June. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.