“You want to believe someone will catch you whatever happens, but they won’t”
In a hot Edinburgh summer with the binmen on strike and riot police on a knife edge, four young men approach a major milestone. For two of them, it is graduation from university; for the others, it is the end of being able to piggyback on their flatmates’ hedonistic student lifestyle; for all of them, it is the unavoidable realisation that they have to face up to the future, however unfriendly it may seem. This is the central premise behind Ella Hickson’s newest play Boys, a HighTide/Nuffield/Headlong co-production now playing at the Soho Theatre, which I suppose will strike fear into the hearts of many about to graduate from university themselves.
In the somewhat blinkered world of Benny, Mack, Timp and Cam, the focus remains squarely on partying until the last possible moment with alcohol, drugs and sex and stories of the same to be found in great abundance. But beneath the bravado lies fear, different kinds of fear for each boy and these slowly play out as the reality of the situation finally begins to hit them and the import of the big questions facing them, as the entry into adulthood lies straight ahead, weighs heavily in the air.
Whilst there is ambition at work in Hickson’s writing, I have to say it didn’t really grip me as being rooted in an essential truth, which severely undermined its occasional profundity. The key line, about what if “being young was as good as it ever gets”, seems to play into a rather self-indulgent world-view for a generation who have barely earned the right to think that way. Yes life is tough, and any sense of generational entitlement may have been whisked away by the economic crisis, but life is also there for the seizing and though there is a lot of talking in this play, there’s little sense of purpose, of direction, even across the diversity of the six characters.
Chloe Lamford’s design recreates the dingy nature of student living perfectly (who didn’t have at least one traffic cone in their flat) and Robert Icke nurtures a convincing set of performances from his young cast. Danny Kirrane’s empathetic (if borderline whinging) Benny is the beating heart of conscience, with Samuel Edward Cook’s moodily rugged yet wearied Mack a definite contrast and Tom Mothersdale delivering an impish qualish as the Peter Pan-like Timp, refusing to grow old as he swishes round in his pants, doling out pills. There’s good support too from Alison O’Donnell’s Laura, Timp’s long-suffering and daydreaming girlfriend, and Eve Posonby’s Sophie, whose connection to Benny’s family forms one of the bigger (if laboured) reveals of the play.
But as is often the way with plays that don’t grab me, I found my attention wandering: to the numerous details that didn’t ring true; the frequently overly sermonising dialogue which goes on at length as Hickson indulges her desire to grandstand at the expense of any rhythm to the play; the bloody rubbish bags – a painfully overworked symbol; and finally around the underwhelming, surprisingly sentimental and overlong ending(s). The emergent message about the despondency of today’s youth does not seem to be coupled with a call for forthrightly responsible behaviour and so the cumulative effect of the play was muted for me and as I said above, rather self-indulgent.