Yen

When your life is borne of problems, pain and lies, the longer you don't – or can't – do anything to improve it, the more you may take an almost masochistic solace (from the outside point of view) in accepting that at least your world is yours alone and then only share it with other players involved in the same pain; as often seen in the behaviour of addicts, criminals and the generally dispossessed. Anna Jordan takes this premise in Yen where such a territory is created and owned by two teenage brothers (occasionally allowing in their mother) in the feral world of their squalid flat on which the audience are seated either side as though peering too closely through their windows. The intensity of the writing and performances that make us believe in every moment of the world we feel very nearly a part of, are of such a high standard as to make this unbearably painful to watch but impossible to tear your eyes away from, in one of the most daringly exciting, shocking, thought-provoking – and at times, very funny – pieces of theatre I have seen for a long time.

Alex Austin as Hench and especially Jake Davies as Bobbie are close to flawless

Bobbie (13) and Hench (16) live – or rather have some sort of existence – in one room of their flat that is the setting for the majority of the play. There is a bedroom but that has become the home of the (possibly also feral) dog, Taliban – so named because "he's vicious...and brown". The bedroom is uninhabitable due to the shit in there that neither have cleaned. In their small world, they stream hardcore porn (we hear, but don't see), play Call of Duty, sleep together on the sofa, get pissed on cans stolen from the local shop and talk like brothers of that age do (endlessly ribbing each other - "don't have a period", "cocktail sausage dick", "jokes"). But their claustrophobic surroundings heighten everything and so teasing easily and quickly tips into dangerous aggression (Bobbie barking like a dog himself when out of control with his anger). It’s underpinned by a familial support of brothers who may get close to seriously hurting each other (physically and mentally) but would more likely kill any outsider who comes between them or upsets them.

The staging here within the roofed space at the Jerwood Upstairs (designed by Georgia Lowe and lit by Elliot Griggs) makes us more a part of this insular world than apart from it. It's dark and smoky and framed either side by scaffold on which they climb to stare out of their window (to an unreachable and unwanted outside world), and from which a set of glaring spotlights flicker intensely with the sounds of the TV, the shooting of the game, and the moaning from the porn. On all four walls (behind the audience on two of them) is a line of more spotlights - highlighting the tension from behind us makes us feel directly involved - that also seem to burn with their heat and metaphorically explode at the key point of drama towards the end; creating one of the most intense moments in the theatre I have ever experienced. Whilst the action on stage has shocked and scared you at this point (no spoilers here) you are left for a few seconds "snow-blind" by the lights, staring across the empty space at other audiences members displaying their discomfort and helplessness like a mirror to your own face. Altogether, it makes for an uncomfortably humid atmosphere, but one that is absolutely necessary for us to understand that this is not the world of others we are watching – it is a world of our own and of our neighbours that we should be wary of judging from the outside. Jeremy Kyle voyeurism this is not.

Outside of this world, it's "never, ever better", Bobbie states as fact whilst promising to be the best brother ever, "stop being such a little cunt and... won't even speak... if you don't want me to", when Jennifer (previously spied at through the window and mocked as the girl with the small tits that Hench wants to fuck) turns up uninvited, wanting to take Taliban away and care for him. Before this, the only other visitor that we have seen has been Maggie but, whilst she may not live here in "her flat", she is very much a part of the world in which they find themselves - her problems and issues being an active part of the fabric of theirs. In Maggie's case, she's an alcoholic, a probable drug addict and a thief with a fair share of abusive partners – some of the characters' back stories may err a little to cliché. Jennifer (later Jenny, then Jen) brings with her a normality and her own longing for something better (the meaning of the Yen of the title, also being the nickname given to her by her dead father) that, whilst creating a sense of hope and happiness to the boys for a time, is such an unknown anathema to the desperate world of negativity to which they have become accustomed, that the combination of the two can only result in the resistant force of two magnets being pushed together and refusing to meld. The pleasant times and changes in the characters' behaviours give us a feeling of positivity – the resulting implosion does not.

This may all sound like a depressing old time that won't tick your boxes of entertainment. Don't let that put you off. Jordan has an ear for the reality of language that makes an insult seem another way of saying 'I love you'. Ned Bennett's direction manages to bring lightness out of tragedy and evoke your tears out of a simple joke – alongside Polly Bennett's movement direction, which gives an air of stylisation that never takes us away from reality but speaks volumes in the way they sleep together, climb together and show both emotional frustration and support of each other with only the slightest touches of mirroring.

And then there are the performances. Whilst the whole cast have clearly invested in their characters (having been in the original production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester before here at the Royal Court), Alex Austin as Hench and especially Jake Davies as Bobbie are close to flawless – delivering lines as though speaking them for the first time. They are as nuanced as they are physical, as touching as they are frightening. When we see Austin in his final scenes after the "event" that changes things, his remarkable talent is exemplified by seeming so vulnerable as to bring you tears for the child whose actions you easily previously labeled as feral. These young actors should receive the plaudits they deserve (as much as Jordan) and I hope they look back at these roles as the launch of very successful careers – the theatre needs them.

Anyone who has any interest in theatre needs to see this play. It may not sound a barrel of laughs but you owe it to yourself to see this – if not before the end of its current short run at the Royal Court (who I would implore to find time in its season to bring back) then when it hopefully resurfaces at another venue. Whilst the subject matter – and experience – may not be one to relax with whilst chomping on popcorn, this isn't hard work, even if it is challenging. This will likely remain in my Top Ten of theatrical experiences for a long, long while.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

The Prisoner

★★
Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Hench is 16, Bobbie is 13. They’re home alone in Feltham with their dog Taliban; playing PlayStation, streaming porn, watching the world go by.

Sometimes their mum Maggie visits, usually with empty pockets and empty promises.

Then Jenny shows up.