Do you ever look around and wonder whether the people surrounding you are having the same experience you are? Obviously they can’t be, not literally, not wholly – but how different is their understanding of this apparently shared moment?
I suspect this is not a thought that has ever troubled Huck, the main character of Henry Darke’s new play Booby’s Bay. He’s already very aware, in the way of so many tortured, factually smart but emotionally dumb young white men of fiction, that the people around him don’t experience the world the way he does. They don’t get him. That no one sees what he sees is, for him, a given.
In contrast I felt very aware, watching Huck as he attempts to make a symbolic stand against… holiday homes in Cornwall? Capitalism? His mom? His brother? His ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend?… by barricading himself into the summer cottage his mom let him squat in over the winter but needs him to vacate now that it’s summer, that probably some were experiencing Huck’s aimless rebellion very viscerally. That such Holden-Caulfield-meets-Thoreau figures are frequently appealing is attested by, well, the fame of Holden Caulfield and David Henry Thoreau. They are not, however, appealing to me.
Booby’s Bay feels like a case study in miscalculation: Darke has miscalculated how convincingly one can insist that Huck’s nativist, nostalgic longing has nothing to do with the kind of feelings behind, say, Brexit; how annoying he can make his (especially male) characters while still expecting me to care about them; and the line between fable and cliché. If the characters and situations resonate with you, then Booby’s Bay probably feels like the former – if they don’t, unfortunately, it’s the latter.
Much like Thoreau, neither Huck nor the play ever convincingly interrogates the degree to which Huck’s aimless disdain for the hard choices others make is enabled by his privilege. Much is made of his working class background – he and his brother were fishermen before An Incident – but he’s lived several years with no job off the largesse, it is implied, of his wealthy mother and sometime-girlfriend. He’s disdainful of any attempts, by anyone, to make money, which, in his rural Cornwall town, usually means doing something related to the tourist trade, but also expands to surfing and industrial fishing.
As he wanders around sneering accusations of class betrayal, no room is left to explore the messy space between justified concerns about the effects of tourism and industry on the local population and environment, and the benefits these can bring to struggling economies. No benefits here, though: only sellouts. And only Huck’s poetic soul can see it.
Chris White’s direction and Paul Burgess’s set design hover uncertainly between realism and gesture, at moments hyper-detailed and at others, confusingly broad. Musical interludes between scenes strive for a mythic feel that jars with the mundanity of the scenes themselves. This is surely intentional, but it’s unclear to what end.
Most frustrating of all are the female characters, who are utterly clichéd: the brassy, new-money mum who loves The X Factor and can’t understand why her son doesn’t bounce back from grief as easily as she did; the ex-girlfriend who’s supposedly the smartest of them all, and yet chooses to date a crass racist who lies and quotes Trump. But Huck’s sure he can win her back if he only proves himself. Of course.
Both Huck and the play overall are obsessed with insiders and outsiders: those who belong and those who don’t. Those who were part of the way things were, and those who are new, and thus harbingers of cheapness and destruction. A journalist formerly from London is roundly mocked at every turn, but never more than when he attempts to indulge his love of the local pastime of surfing. A character who moved to the coast from Birmingham at age nine is indicated in the script as not speaking with a real Cornwall accent – no amount of naturalization is sufficient, apparently.
It’s a frankly troubling theme in the current political moment, and yet, this is perfectly in keeping with Huck’s brand of self-centered, nostalgic revolution. Wanting everything to go back to how it was, wanting no outsiders to come in, are not thoughts that often occur to people for whom the mythologized past was not quite so rosy, or who are the ones trying to get in. Huck insists it’s about working class solidarity, the environment, the poetry of the sea. But by failing to meaningfully explore the real complexities of this issue, Booby’s Bay is just looking backwards.
Booby’s Bay is at the Finborough Theatre until February 24th. For more details, click here.