Last year a BBC documentary called No More Girls and Boys dug down into the different ways we treat male and female children. One of the most disturbing scenes was when a class of seven-year-olds were tested on how well they could articulate emotion. The girls could use a variety of words to describe their feelings. The boys, however, only excelled at describing one emotion: anger.
Toxic masculinity is writ large over Isaac Came Home from the Mountain, a new play from emerging writer Phil Ormrod. The all-male cast regularly burst into fits of explosive rage. Fathers bare their teeth like dogs at their sons. Simple social interactions become playground power struggles and love is often expressed through violence.
The title comes from the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac at the summit of a mountain. As Abraham raised a knife to slaughter his son, an angel intervened and told him that Isaac could live – God only wanted to test Abraham’s obedience. In Ormrod’s play we see two (presumably single) fathers and their sons, and like Abraham neither man is in the running for a Father of the Year award. Their sons are condemned both because they are starved of paternal affection and because they’re unskilled working class men, repeatedly told they’re worthless and good for nothing.
Bobby (Charles Furness) is a college drop-out who we meet during a shouting match with his father John (Guy Porritt). “You’ve not got a lot going for you”, John tells Bobby bluntly, “You’ve got no skills and no experience”. Bobby is told not to show his face again until he’s found work and he eventually gets a cash-in-hand job at a scrapyard. Grimy corrugated iron and a desiccated lamp litter the stage – this is a scrapheap in both a literal and metaphorical sense. “We deal with things people give up on”, says Bobby’s new boss Mike (Ian Burfield). “You’ll fit right in”.
Despite a gruff exterior, Mike develops a soft spot for Bobby and becomes a substitute father figure, much to the frustration of Mike’s real son Chris (Kenny Fullwood) who also works on the scrapyard. Yet when Bobby is suddenly rejected by Mike, he tries to win back his affection with disastrous consequences.
Furness is mesmerising as Bobby. He is simultaneously vulnerable, volatile and malicious, edging closer to disaster the moment we meet him thanks to his naivety. Burfield and Porritt are also terrific as the two failed fathers. What’s most poignant is the sense that they are at heart flawed but decent men whose aggression and failure to openly display emotion pushes their sons away. One of the most heart-breaking moments in the play is when John realises that he is to blame for Bobby’s behaviour. Fullwood is less good as Chris – his character is one-note and his relationship with his father isn’t fleshed out.
Ormrod’s naturalistic dialogue eloquently speaks of a generation of men that have fallen through the cracks. Mike is justifiably angry about boys like Bobby “being told you are bugger all”. Meanwhile, director Carla Kingham has an astute eye for the way men behave. She understands that masculinity can range from clumsily appreciating a beautiful view to facing off like animals. Repressed anguish constantly ripples beneath the surface of this production, occasionally bursting free in primal howls of torment.
This is a hard-hitting piece of social realism, a lament for those who are let down by our educational system and jobs market and told they’re nothing. It’s also a plea to let go of outdated ideas about masculinity. Like the seven-year-old boys in the BBC documentary, what is most striking about these characters is their emotional immaturity. It’s time for both fathers and sons to do better, or we’ll all be facing the consequences.
Isaac Came Home from the Mountain is playing at Theatre 503 until 2 June
Photo: Helen Murray