Boy

For all we may use the platitude that “life is too short”, the harsh reality is that for most of us, it is anything but – and we fill the many minutes, hours and days bemoaning the structure enforced upon us by school, work and law, without realising we are lucky to have something to do to get through it all. Leo Butler's Boy is a heartbreaking and draining day in the life of 17-year old Liam – too old for hated school, too young for benefits – as he does... well, as he does nothing of any consequence. Nothing with a point or a purpose. Nothing memorable. He's not even given the label of being homeless, a thief or a criminal, because that at least would be something interesting. We watch him doing nothing with an intensity that is as strong as the lack of attention we pay any of the the many ‘Liams’ that we likely pass every day on any city street.

It has a level of intensity that will stay with you for a very long time

Ostensibly his day starts at a GUM Clinic where he is getting a check-up for something unclear, then tries to find his old schoolmate 'Fam', travels up to London in the search, looks after his sister and visits a job centre. None of that really matters though – it's all just map points to keep him moving. Unpicking the events, his lack of purpose becomes clear – it's unlikely he has ever had sex; his mate has moved on from being just a school rebel; the highlight of the trip to London is to visit Sports Direct... These aren't surprising revelations, they're just facts laid bare with no attempt at dramatic tension. It just is.

The more we see this as just his life – it could be yesterday, it might be tomorrow – with no emotional breakdowns, no life-affirming changes, no attempts at gaining our sympathies, the more it strips away at our own darkest thoughts as to how much life really has to offer. Even when he moves from one scene to another, the only glimpse we get at him developing is when he misquotes things he has heard in his short-term memory (he is told that dogs shit, so the next time he sees a dog, he says that it must stink of shit and piss; he's offered drugs – “anything you want” – so then pretends he can supply “anything you want”).

Director Sacha Wares and her designer collaborator Miriam Buether force us to experience this way of existing (or lack thereof) by using language only as one of the sums of many parts. The space at The Almeida has been transformed so that we sit all around a constantly moving travelator where props – doors, bus stops, roadworks, even Sainsbury’s tills – get affixed and removed by a stage management crew that is as important here as the cast. The large, mainly young, many debuting, cast of nearly 30 walk on and off the travelator and the stage to play multiple, semi-background parts – most of whom are ignoring Liam to different degrees (as we probably would be doing ourselves). There is a constant throbbing background sound (perhaps like the endless heartbeat as the only true reminder he is alive) that gets under your skin. The lighting breaks convention by not dimming until Liam's night progresses – making it feel all the more uncomfortably real.

At times, this all becomes a bit too clever for its own good when it is clear that the staging and stylisation have been prioritised over the script or character – such as when the music and lights suddenly blare together as the letters to make up the Sports Direct sign are placed on and offstage in far-too-quick succession. The clunkiness of the parade of the flat doors appearing and disappearing also seem unnecessary, with too many doors and too distracting a noise to be worthwhile. You can't help but think at such times that style may have won the battle over substance.

But perhaps the bravest elements are the swathes of time where there are no scene developments, no effects, little set and where next to nothing at all actually takes place. Minutes that seem like hours (as they would to our protagonist) are spent where he just sits at a bus stop as the travelator takes him round the stage. Or when he sits on a public toilet eating the chicken and chips he has picked up from the floor and kept in his bag for later. Or when he just walks and walks and walks and walks – going nowhere, doing nothing. It's difficult to watch and exhausting to sit through (as made clear by the several audience members lulled into forty winks) for they have purposefully eschewed any idea of pace so that we also experience the dearth of pace in this life we are seeing.

Frankie Fox is making his professional stage debut as Liam and he is superb casting, giving a memorably underplayed performance of a confused young boy with no real character traits other than those he has borrowed from others in order to ‘fit in’ and get some kind of ‘respect’. In doing so, the character himself has become unmemorable, unwanted and unnecessary in his society – that Fox manages from this to create a vulnerability that doesn't ask for sympathy is a mark of a great new raw talent. When asked how he feels by the doctor, he simply replies “Nothing” – not with tears or self-realisation, just making it sound natural as feelings don't come into his mindset.

I can't say that I ‘enjoyed’ this 75 minutes but I'm immensely moved by having seen it. It’s a real spotlight on the things we look away from in life because they are too real and too difficult – mainly because we all have a sense of futility at times. Whilst we may not be Liam, this isn't just about the difficulties of being young and disenfranchised today, it's about the uncomfortable truth that many of us can have feelings of emptiness. Be warned that you will leave feeling emotionally drained – with no easy outlet of being given something real to cry at. It truly is about feeling and having and doing nothing – but that ‘nothing’ creates something here that has a level of intensity that will stay with you for a very long time.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

A boy. At a bus stop. Easily missed.

Master of observation, Leo Butler casts a sharp eye over contemporary London and picks out someone for us to follow. Someone easily missed amongst the crowd.

Following last year's groundbreaking production of Game, the innovative director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether return to the Almeida to bring this ambitious exploration of austerity-era London to life. They are joined by an award-winning creative team and an exciting young company of actors.

Written by Leo Butler, who has quietly established himself as one of the UK's most talented political playwrights, Boy is an important new play about coming of age in 21st-century London.