Belt Up Theatre return once more to the Southwark Playhouse with The Boy James, to offer audiences a journey into the atmospheric and audience-focused theatre which they have come to be known for. After their recent Edinburgh success, and playing in London for a month, you’d think that this young company would be slightly burnt out. Yet they prove that their determination to create an insular theatrical experience for their audiences remains strong and bold, lifting the possibilities of intimate theatre.
Transforming part of the vaults that lie within the Southwark Playhouse, Belt Up’s attempts to create an enclosed environment for the audience sees us squeezing onto chairs, sofas and cushions littered within the small playing space. Large sheets hanging above give an impression of dens and forts built in our youths when playtime extended to magical lands and adventures. This fort, coupled with Jethro Compton as The Boy who bounces between us introducing people to each other and breaking the tension of the evening, creates the theme of lost childhood that The Boy James so firmly resonates within.
AYT has previously investigated Belt Up’s use of audience participation to bring about the action of the piece, and The Boy James is no different. Playing within the intimate environment, Compton’s childlike playfulness is infectious, which sees us as an audience joining in on games of ‘I Spy’ and ‘It’. When Compton tells us to hide from James (played by James Wilkes), we immediately fling ourselves behind books, coats and blankets before giggles pass through the space followed by a hushed silence. This level of play is a joyous opening to The Boy James, leading the audience into the mindset of youth and playfulness. Yet all boys and girls must grow up eventually, and as the short play evolves we see just how quickly the innocence of youth disappears as adults.
Based around the author of Peter Pan, J.M Barrie, The Boy James is more theatre of the senses than narrative-based. Alexander Wright’s text rushes from childhood and youthful dreams to shattering illusions of the brutality of adult life – all within an hour. Dominic J Allen’s direction eases its audience through youth, puberty and thrusts us somewhere into child molesting and abuse, leaving The Boy curled up, abandoned, as adulthood does to our own childhood at the end of the play. It is not through the narrative that emotion is evoked, but rather the connection between The Boy and James – between the child and the man – that sees us questioning how far we remove ourselves from our younger selves as adults. James’s attempts to leave this treasure trove to ‘grow up’ and put his childlike behavior behind him sees The Boy desperately clinging to him, unable to grasp the notion of not being able to play and have adventures.
Whilst The Boy James propels its audience through a series of emotions and scratches our desires to be children once more, the lack of narrative and structural focus points leave you somewhat disorientated and, in my case, disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the play is effective, touching on an emotional level, yet this flicker into the subconscious desires for our youths doesn’t offer a completely filling experience. We travel naturally with our protagonist, and whilst we hold in our minds a sense that James will join us on our adventure and The Girl (Lucy Farrett) was just a nightmare, the connection to the wider world is minimal. Caught in the insular world that Belt Up creates, this moment is barely snatched up before it is taken away from us, leaving Neverland a little too far out of reach.
Aside from a lack of narrative, The Boy James offers those unfamiliar with Belt Up’s work an evening of interactive playfulness and twisting emotions that will leave you wanting to apologise to your inner child for not playing as much as you should. Belt Up Theatre continues to stamp its mark across theatre, and to blur the boundaries between audience and performers, between the real and the fictional, and, above all, to sweep you away in the magic of theatre storytelling.
The Boy James is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 28th January, tickets can be booked through the Southwark Playhouse website.