Theatre Reivew: Boys’ Life (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Safety pants! Matthew Crowley (left) and Max Warrick (right). Photograph: Courtesy of One Fell Swoop (from the production at the Etcetera Theatre)

Safety pants! Matthew Crowley (left) and Max Warrick (right). Photograph: Courtesy of One Fell Swoop (from the production at the Etcetera Theatre)

Rating: ***

After its initial run at the Etcetera Theatre, One Fell Swoop’s production takes up a short transfer at the newly rebranded and reconfigured King’s Head Theatre. With Boardwalk Empire co-writer Howard Korder’s Pulitzer Prize nominated play at hand, it’s a sure fire hit, right?

Written and set in 1980s America, this production is polished and brimming with colourful nostalgia. Rock classic from The Stone Roses, Nena, and Men Without Hats blare out the speakers during scene changes, and Kellie Jane Walter’s costumes are as bright and neon as they come.

The young cast are also energetic and competent. Even if their American accents aren’t always convincing, their portrayal of their characters are, especially the trio of leads. Matthew Crowley is incredibly endearing as the charmingly handsome but reckless Don; Luke Trebilcock wonderfully desperate and morose without overdoing it; and Max Warrick is brilliantly distasteful, crass, and juvenile as the show’s antagonist/anti-hero.

So what makes it fall short? For starters, Korder’s examination of coming of age and the crisis of masculinity just doesn’t feel too relevant anymore. Whilst there are some interesting notions that still chime true, they’re nothing particularly shocking. We’ve dealt with the existential notions of what it means to be a 1980s guy and since moved right the way through the 1990s New Man and the Noughties Metrosexual. Thus, everything feels incredibly period and distant. It doesn’t help with director Sebastien Blanc keeping the original 1980s setting and deciding not to update the time period. Despite all the talk of imminent nuclear holocaust, resetting to a more contemporary era might have helped to make it feel more current and foster a better connection with the audience, especially bringing to the fore some of the play’s other themes such as ambivalence, apathy, and crisis of purpose.

But the main problem is that somewhere along the line both cast and company forget that Korder’s text is supposed to be a comedy. The delivery is far too serious, revelling in the rhetorical aspect of the text and trying to be gritty. For example, Anna Brooks-Beckham is intense as sculptress Lisa, but her severity doesn’t give any room for Crowley’s funny retorts to be just that. Elsewhere you hear other great little zingers, but because they’re not delivered as such you don’t find yourself laughing. The only definite comic highlight of the entire play is Charlotte Gascoyne’s buzzingly insane fortune teller-cum-cheap trick. But there’s not much beyond that besides the odd titter. Instead of giving us food for thought by way of some giggles, we’re stuck with something maudlin and philosophical. But thankfully, at only 80 minutes without interval, it’s something that just about stays its welcome and is wholly watchable, even though it’s frustrating that this really should have been a better comic diversion.

Other than that, with a talented cast and slick production there’s nothing outside of the treatment of the text that’s fundamentally wrong. One Fell Swoop is a company that shows it has real potential to create some great fringe theatre, but really needs to choose a better text or at least one they understand.

Boys’ Life plays on Sundays and Mondays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN until 23 June 2013. Tickets are £19.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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