90s Brixton. Raves. Dub Music. Beer. Love. A heady cocktail of swirling colours, thumping music and flirtatious sprees.
Or not quite. Harry MacKrill’s production of Paul Boakye’s Boy with Beer elects to spotlight a more complicated tale. The production is surprisingly calm and naturalistic, and with a vibrant toolkit to play with, it’s a risky move to present a stripped back production. Of the play, Boakye said, “it is still rare to see Black life at the centre of serious drama in England.” Perhaps this sentiment served as a provocation for Mackrill, who has certainly delivered a production to be taken seriously.
The initial thud of dub music is quickly muted in order to amplify a more intimate story. Though misleadingly marketed as being set to soundtrack of dub, really this is a crucial story of two men wrestling with identity. Dub music makes a cameo in the opening seconds but is not a frequent guest.
A Ghanaian man, Karl (Chin Nyenwe), is in his ninth year of living in London and is trying hard to keep a hold of his heritage. Nyenwe’s Karl is stoic and wise, almost shield like, he appears self-sufficient. He meets Donovan (Enyi Okoronkwo) on a night out, then again on the morning after. The pair begin a rocky relationship which is threated by the struggle each faces to understand their identity. For Donovan, this means coming to terms with his homosexuality, despite his pregnant girlfriend at home. Eager to squash his passions into the darkness, he seeks guidance from Karl to reach a place of acceptance. As the men navigate their own lives, they also inch closer and closer until they are ready to accept the growing level of intimacy between them.
The direction seems to purposefully forgo certain aspects embedded in Boakye’s script that could warrant a more stylised production but it successfully narrows the lens to focus on the blossoming romance of two gay black men. Rather than cash in on the febrile mood of 90s Brixton and bombard the stage with a rave like atmosphere, Harry Mackrill’s staging is quiet, and ultimately very moving.
Set in an almost round, the audience partake as observers to the emerging relationship. Handled with tact and care, we are never made to feel like we are unwanted voyeurs. The central relationship is carefully considered, but never dull. Their first sexual encounter is disastrous, but handled with comic excellence; over eager Donovan wants to quell his passion for Karl quickly in order to dispose of his feelings.
Boakye wrote about his current day in 1991 where this play is set; now it’s enjoying its twenty-fifth anniversary. Instead of transferring the production to modern day, it feels right that the 90s remain the backdrop. Black British history is not well represented on our stages, so it’s valuable to show us a moment in time as well the more universal story that transcends. The play retains its relevance; questions of sexuality and identity are still pertinent. With Karl instructing Donovan to strive for self-love and acceptance, we can hope that this sentiment will continue to be passed down.
Boy with Beer is playing at The Kings Head Theatre until 26 November For tickets and further information: Kings Head Theatre website.