STREETS OF LONDON, SNAKING TO NOWHERE…
The boy of the title is Liam: gormless and runty, lost and unnoticed , scion of a demographic much discussed right now. For he’s a white, working-class, 17-year-old “NEET” (not in education, employment or training). His turf is today’s London, its squalid impersonal bustle quite brilliantly evoked by director Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether’s ingenious set. She turns the Almeida’s centre into a snaking conveyor-belt, on which (by impressively precise stage management) there rapidly appear and disappear shabby council-flat doors, roadworks, bus shelters full of noisy lairy girls, Oyster barriers and park saplings . As Liam drifts around, broke and with no money on his phone, feeding off thrown-away chicken wing boxes, he looks for his friend . Who has an X-Box to play Call of Duty. He makes his way uncertainly from his own ‘hood to Sports Direct on Oxford Street, which he sees as a sort of Valhalla.
On the rolling, never-ending, never-rewarding street belt there also appear occasional Londoners with actual jobs, hurrying through the Tube, or drunk and throwing up outside silk night-club ropes when evening comes. Sometimes there are agents of social assistance – police catching him dodging a fare, as middle-aged man exasperatedly offers to pay it for him,; there are doctors, and a jobcentre dealing with confused people worrying about ESA and PIPs and the new benefits regime.
The latter mainly peer at laptops and wish Liam would go away and become 18, or employed, or take up volunteering. Vaguely he says “cool, wicked, yeh” and wanders on. One of his friends tells him to “F—- off home and grow up”; his schoolfriend’s mother, when one of the confusing, whirling doorways is opened to him, expresses much the same. In the opening moments a brisk middle-class woman doctor peremptorily checks his penis for STDs (I think this may be a heavy indication of the emasculation of the old manual labouring classes by the ascent of professional women).
And so the city whirls on, with a sinister half-heard heartbeat, a pounding remorselessness, and oor wandering Liam – amid his mumbles and argot – makes it gradually, keenly, tragically clear that all he wants from life is something to be “busy” with during his empty days. “Bizzie! Bizness!” he says. But he hasn’t even the go to deal drugs. Or, like his more articulate friend, to blame it all with vague political resentment on “estate agents and immigrants and Syria an’ shit an’ ISIS” .
Writer Leo Butler and the creative team have created something not quite a play, but ultimately a sort of art installation expressing London’s modern underside and restless, roadworky neurosis. Look at it that way, and it is rather magnificent. A company of some two dozen, mainly young (the lairy quarrelling girls are a hoot, “hashtag bitch, yeah, like..” etc). Seven are on a first professional engagement, including Liam himself, a very assured performance by Frankie Fox, who holds our sympathy alongside our exasperation, and could well have done with a more complete characterization and backstory.
We deliberately don’t see his parents, which is a pity, though there is a moment with his nine-year-old, contemptuous half-sister. Who, once again, like the girls in the bus shelter and the weary GP, may be sending us a not-too-coded message about how females are doing no good to these lost boys. Probably true. But depressing. It all is.
box office 0207 359 4404 to May
Principal partner ASPEN. Pron supporters Arsenal Foundation / Paul Hamlyn Foundation / Sackler Trust/ Alex Timken