If we really needed anyone to tell us, the outlook for 16 year-old boys leaving school with few qualifications is bleak. The world premiere of Leo Butler’s Boy at the Almeida very effectively takes us on a tour through a day in the life of Liam, a young man at a loss to know what to do. The vehicle which allows this is a continuously moving travelator, which winds it way around the stage with the set constantly replaced to allow us into a doctor’s surgery, a bus shelter, a park, a tower block, a sports shop, a lavatory and other areas of the metropolis, as Liam searches for someone to relate to and something to do. There is a danger with innovative set design in that it can take over from the real substance of the play, but here (once one has got over wondering if you have wandered into an airport terminal or some kind of human dim sum restaurant) the set allows us to move with Liam and it generates a remarkable amount of action and content for a relatively short production. The other innovation, the means by which the actors are able to sit or lie without any visible means of support, is clever and effective but occasionally clunky (literally), as the performers adjust themselves into place (this seemed tougher for some of the older cast members).
Frankie Fox makes his theatrical debut as Liam and produces an exceptional performance. There is no respite for him as he is always on the moving stage, even though there are some well observed vignettes taking place away from him – two school girls in a bus shelter give a welcome comedic interlude, including an exchange that culminates with “high five your face!”. Many will come out of this play with a new view of those teenagers that they may have previously criticised for idly hanging around the streets and parks. Liam can get no help from a doctor (who assumes he must be concerned about having an STD), former teachers, social workers (he is too old for school but too young for help), friends (who have gone to visit their Sports Direct nirvana on Oxford Street), or family. Liam’s parents are not seen but are forced to neglect him, and his foul-mouthed younger sister, by a zero hours work regime.
If all this sounds grim that is because it is and it needs to be. It will be uncomfortable viewing for many, with scenes of onanism and vomiting adding to the gritty realism, but the cast (which includes at least 8 first time theatrical performers) does a first rate job at putting across a strong message. There are some minor issues with dialogue in danger of being missed by scenes overlapping on the travelator, but there is no doubt that the audience will have looked at the youth of Islington in a different light as they walked home.