Boys is a sprawling behemoth of a play. Although based around a small group of friends in modern day Edinburgh, it spans the full gamut of emotions the unsettled and insecure generation of which they are members feel. It is by no means a perfect text or a perfect production, but its moments of raw emotion make it a captivating, chaotic performance.
The complex web of the work’s characters begins with Benny (Alexander Bird), who has just graduated from university and is staring the rest of his life in the face. Much of the play’s action stems from his turbulent emotional history, which Bird lets out gradually. He is particularly adept at keeping his character’s desperation behind a chipper veneer and only occasionally letting the audience glimpse the depths of his inner despair.
He is joined by various housemates and neighbours, each in their own way facing the same void that to which Benny is trying not to succumb. Of particular note are Timp (Ross Kernahan), a mixture of Withnail and Russell Brand who generally manages to keep his character on the right side of hysterical; Luke Farrugia as Cam, an adorably insecure violinist questioning what to do with a life he never quite chose, and Gabrielle Nellis-Pain as Laura, Timp’s co-worker who yearns for a “settled life” that is slipping from her grasp.
The interpersonal relationships of the cast are complex, and it is a testament to the ensemble that they manage to juggle so many plots and subplots without losing the audience. But the minutiae of the characters’ interrelations play second fiddle to larger and more universal concerns. These are people who are quietly falling apart and wondering how to express their howling desperation amidst their life of opportunity and relative ease.
To this end, the work’s symbolic register is well developed. The rubbish bags that pile up around the kitchen amid the city-wide strike that forms the play’s background become metaphors for the clash in world view between Benny and Mack (Henry Bauckham). Similarly, Benny and Sophie’s (Jenna Fincken) need to be physically elevated above the action speaks to their need for control, or possibly a grasping towards those lost to heaven. However, the play’s bubbling undercurrents do surface in less successful ways. The action descends into drunken, drug-fuelled chaos at certain points; this is evocative, certainly, but like being the only sober one in a room full of drunk people, it soon becomes tedious. There are also a few annoying tropes (constant cups of tea and needlessly repeated nick names) that begin to grate by the end.
The play has such a fizzing energy and humour that it hangs together, despite these shortcomings. Towards its beautifully pitched ending, when all the bitter recriminations have finished, Benny’s refrain of “Can’t you see what I’m saying?” receives a tentative, but definite affirmation. It suggests that even among uncertainty and irredeemable ideological clashes, a commonality remains. Music, no doubt, to the largely millennial audience’s ears.
Boys played at the Lost Theatre until November 26.
Photo: David Elms