Review: Yen, Royal Court

“Brother, I’ve come home”

Anna Jordan’s Yen follows its fellow 2013 Bruntwood Prize-winner The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch in transferring from Manchester to London and given that In-Sook Chappell’s P’yongyang was on the shortlist for the same year and is selling out the Finborough now, it’s all rather a good showcase for this particular cohort of that playwriting competition.

The play is a taut, terrifying version of corrupted teenagerhood, not a million miles away from the world of Simon Stephens’ Herons, just set on the other side of London in a council flat in Feltham. There, brothers 16-year-old Hench and 13-year-old Bobby have been left alone by their mother and become cut off from the world around them with no family, friends or school to distract them from a relentless diet of porn and computer games and just a single t-shirt to share.

But bleak as it may seem in the very rough and tumble of their horseplay and banter, there’s tenderness too. When their alcoholic mother turns up, they know just what to do to pull her out of a diabetic coma with the leftover Luzocade kept for this very purpose, and it is this quality that unexpected visitor Jennifer espies in the pair when she turns up on their doorstep, concerned about the dog (unseen, but named Taliban) they keep locked up in their bedroom.

And so what at first seemed hopeless suddenly becomes hopeful, and this is where Yen really sings. Jordan’s ability to encapsulate the modern world so neatly, where the nuclear family has been so thoroughly exploded and domestic bliss comes in the arrangements we find for our ourselves, is beautifully realised. Naturally, this sits right besides the ugliness of the real world and Jordan does not shy away from showing us the difficulties the boys have in engaging therein.

In the shape-shifting terrain of Ned Bennett’s production, Alex Austin’s Hench is just fantastic, his putative romance with Jennifer a gorgeous experiment in socialisation but his untamed side never too far away, as the poor heater (or is it more…) finds out. Jake Davies’ younger Bobbie is rawer, more damaged as the play’s key moment (unseen) reveals, his eager energy spilling all over the stage. Annes Elwy’s Jennifer is also impressively played, sidestepping any potential tweeness with real warmth.

Yen doesn’t quite sustain the psychological intensity of its first two-thirds through to the end. The coiling turns of ‘before’ the event are so good, so brilliantly weighted between viciousness and tenderness that the aftermath leaves us spent, the momentum bleeds away a little. But in the traverse staging of Georgia Lowe’s design with its climbing frames and blinding floodlights, and some ingenious lighting work from Elliot Griggs who conjures flickering screens right in front of us, this disturbing drama is well worth the prize.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 13th February

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