As we enter the space, Boy has already started; the actors circle around the stage on a moving travelator, sitting on invisible chairs. Following their collaboration on Game, this is director Sacha Wares and designer Miriam Buether’s strong opening image – a unique atmosphere that grabs your attention immediately. We meet Liam, an unemployed 17-year-old portrayed by Frankie Fox, who is a challenging protagonist; he is just as innocent and hopeless as he is dangerous and aggressive. But ultimately he is just a boy – a boy who doesn’t own an iPhone, doesn’t have access to the internet, to employment, to public transport, or indeed to human contact.
There isn’t a lot we know about Liam, just like there isn’t a lot of plot to Leo Butler’s script. It quickly becomes apparent that this is not about a cohesive narrative, rather a series of snapshots that are placed onto the moving travelator only to be taken off again. Butler paints picture after picture that are all familiar; schoolgirls tweeting while waiting for the bus; the machine at Sainsbury’s warns the costumer about an unexpected item in the bagging area; cut-outs of Billy Elliot dangle in the air as the busy Londoners leave the tube. The familiarity serves not only as comic relief, but as a reminder that many can feel lonely and vulnerable in a city that has so many written and unwritten rules.
There are some really effective moments that present the possibilities of Buether’s design, like when Liam leans so far back he nearly touches the front row with his head while a doctor examines his genitals. In moments such as this one we truly feel like voyeurs, as if we stumbled upon a life – the kind we usually ignore – but this time this production insists that we watch. And we do, sticking with Liam through the whole day as he never leaves the constantly moving stage, wandering aimlessly, communicating clumsily and even sleeping rough. It is an unrelenting production asking important questions about the systems that surround us, inhabited by a youthful cast with many members (including Fox) performing on the stage for the very first time. This unusual choice of casting feels like a breath of fresh air, as no one tries to work the room or over-enunciate any of the words. Instead, it is a strong, multi-roling ensemble, with every member comfortable in their roles. Yet I personally felt that Matthew Wellard, Mohammad Amiri and Georgie Lord brought stand-out performances that were memorable.
Although the timing and the precision of the production are truly impressive, the travelator quickly becomes the main driving force of the play, often upstaging the more delicate elements of the production. On top of the constant movement the play is also buzzing with sound from start to finish, which I found at points redundant and a tad too explicit: the travelator is already enough to symbolize the unstopping system and might not need Gareth Fry’s restless soundscape that never lets the scenes to breathe. Nevertheless, the set successfully visualises the non-stopping world in which Liam has no agency to stop the cycle, making Buether’s travelator much more than a mere gimmick.
Boy is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 May . For more information and tickets, see the Almeida Theatre website. Photo: Kwame Lestrade