Tucked away in the back of a pub, the King’s Head Theatre is designed with intimacy in mind; depth comes from the performers rather than elaborate staging, and successful offerings here often rely on domestic drama to explore broader themes. A fine idea then, to revive Paul Boakye’s Boy With Beer, one of the best known plays with two black gay protagonists, after an absence of more than twenty years. A funny, bittersweet two hander, the play deals with Big Ideas like sex, self-discovery and the concept of identity in a world of social pressure and cultural expectation. With a story that transcends its 90’s setting, this performance is – a few rough edges aside – a moving success.
The action follows the developing relationship of Karl and Donovan, two young Londoners with a whole host of shared and separate problems. Donovan is immature, avoiding confronting his pregnant girlfriend and his own sexuality through an ever-shifting façade of braggadocio, insults, jokes and wisecracks. Karl, older, intelligent, is more comfortable in a relationship; but holding on to his Ghanaian roots and tallying the differing cultures of the two places he calls home weighs heavy on his mind. Their interactions tell a story that seems exceptionally honest both in 1991 and 2016, with director Harry Mackrill crafting a production that combines humour and pathos in a touching glance at the barriers lovers overcome together.
Chin Nyenwe is impressive as Karl, his measured front masking a subtle anger at the social injustices around him, and perhaps a need to be appreciated? Happily it’s not hard to appreciate Nyenwe’s performance – he gives the audience a charming portrayal of someone glad to be having their cynicism worn down. But if Karl is laid back, Enyi Okornkwo’s Donovan is the polar opposite, bristling with nervous energy. It’s also a front, hiding confused feelings and past hurts. Okornkwo is superb, seguing wildly from irrepressible man-about-town to vulnerable youth, sometimes in the same sentence. The two have an instant chemistry which is particularly impressive bearing in mind the tight rehearsal times for this show (otherwise betrayed only by the odd fluffed line).
Pressing in on the actors from all sides, audience members have a remarkable insight into both the mechanics and the ideas of the play. The relationship becomes tangible as we share space and feelings with the actors. There was even a moment when Nyenwe accidentally knocked a lamp from the bedside table, only for it to magically right itself thanks to a helping hand from a proximate member of the audience, and the action continued unaffected.
The production is not really set to a ‘soundtrack of dub’, as advertised, which is something to be thankful for as anything too intrusive would have shattered the mutually progressive relationship that develops before the eyes of the audience. The play feels strongest when Karl and Donovan spark off each other, and thus weakest when Karl takes control of the stage with a poem or monologue. Small criticisms, though, and those aside an excellent show.
Boy With Beer is on until 26th November 2016 at the King’s Head Theatre. Click here for more details.