Boys, The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton

Student life is ripe for caricature, and a first glance at Boys, which premiered at Southampton’s Nuffield before transferring to the Soho Theatre, suggests that Ella Hickson’s new play is about to ring the changes on archetypes we’ve seen a hundred times before. The set, designed by Chloe Lamford, offers such convincing student squalor that audience members actually shrank in their seats, fighting the compulsion to leave the auditorium and find something with which to rinse their abused eyeballs. But this is a play that catches fire within minutes and burns more blindingly until its wrenching end. Temperatures rise in the world of the play too, as the end-of-year sun shines, the garbage gets out of control, and gilded youth can’t win, can’t succeed in hiding its horrors. Hickson’s pitch-perfect script reveals an author who knows the speech of the young inside-out, except Boys never feels like a recording: Hickson turns up the volume on reality, channelling naturalistic dialogue into a plot so sharp that it’s distantly reminiscent of early Stoppard, though minute-to-minute the play’s raw, robust dialogue could hardly be more different.

The characteristic Headlong energy, which has animated a host of memorable productions, powers this one too. Danny Kirrane, previously a superb Benvolio in Headlong’s Romeo and Juliet, gives an outstanding and subtle performance as Benny, who is at once both down-to-earth, brilliant – he has just carried off a First – a caretaker to his flatmates (all more or less lost), yet mined with a damage that, dangerous as it might seem on stage, is also devastating to watch. Lorn Macdonald was a quieter presence as the fragile enfant perdu, Cam, who wears musical genius like an anvil round his skinny throat – or perhaps like a profoundly unwelcome chastity belt. Both Alison O’Donnell and Eve Ponsonby delivered complex, hilarious and very watchable interpretations of the female interlopers within an all-male enclave. Ponsonby’s singing, in particular, froze the theatre – not through musical ineptitude, but simply by the staggering indecorum of song at that moment in the play. Boys is a drama that hides its own sophistication under a veneer of crudeness and accessibility, but it repays careful attention at every level, and the function of music within the production strikingly exemplified this. Again and again, Hickson’s approach was to initiate a joke, to intensify its effects by calculated repetition – and then to crush her own comedy underfoot. Music is unruly in Boys – loud, funny, seemingly inartistic – but it follows this overweening pattern, and while I won’t spoil the end, the sheer power attained by Tom Mills’ sound design in the closing moments was theatrically striking.

The night I saw Boys, the audience was transfixed. It’s a play far too charged with the passion, the sickliness, the real desperation of the young ever to feel like an ‘issues’ drama, yet it explores in refracted form many controlling fears of the recession generation. “How well you do doesn’t have anything to do with how good you are,” insists Mack, resident student nihilist. Samuel Edward Cook carries this difficult part off well: of all characters, Mack would be the most susceptible to critical mockery, but Cook convinces as an already-weary individualist – sexually magnetic, cynical, but with an edge of unexplained threat. He voices many terrors: the belief that the younger generation no longer have any power at all over their destinies, that isolation and detachment are now the only possible reactions to a world which, though overconnected to the point of burn-out, nonetheless feels increasingly balkanized at a human level. We thought we knew how to live. Boys has at its heart the knowledge that we don’t know any more, and that the question of “how?” will hurt to ask, and it will hurt to answer – it will hurt, even, to watch, because beneath its artistry, this play is our lives.

And yet for all that, Boys is hilarious. Hickson’s comic gift mustn’t be undersold. Her peculiar strength is the ability to combine such talent with an acutely compassionate insight into her generation’s insuperable plight – and the courage to put it on the stage for all to see.