Boys will be boys. Boisterous, aggressive, cheeky boys. They beat and tease each other, and they charm us with a grin and a wink. But what does it take for a boy to be a man?
Boys is a celebration of masculinity that plays up to stereotypes as much as it smashes them, bristling with energy, power and physicality. The PappyShow is a theatre company that was created for actors to train in physical theatre, using exercise and training to devise work, and Boys seems like the ideal show to explore this form.
It’s made up of a series of vignettes each illustrating a different theme, from discipline to endurance and brotherhood. There’s dance, there’s physical exertion, and there are moments of quiet contemplation, with the all-male cast of nine poking fun at one another, undermining one another, but ultimately learning to trust one another. There’s a semi-improvised feel to it all that only adds to the electric energy, the unexpected nature, the idea that the mood could swing wildly at any moment.
It begins with a fight, in typically aggressive fashion, Charli XCX’s song ‘Boys’ juxtaposed in the background over surging dubstep beats. There’s a sense of competition between all their performances, though one section sees them literally competing through physical exercise that seems to be a nod to gym culture and body image. Another scene is a haka-esque war dance that’s as terrifying as it is impressive.
Yet the show is most arresting in its moments of tenderness. Most surprising is a repeated dance, like a musical refrain, of two boys in love. What begins as a playful interaction soon blossoms into a subtle romance, tentative and fragile, their bodies intertwining melodically. When it ends in tragedy in its final repetition, it is genuinely heartbreaking.
In another moment, a boy screams with pent up rage and frustration, chasing off his peers. After a breath, he turns to the audience and sings a love song. There is such strength in that moment of vulnerability that’s more powerful than any physicality shown elsewhere.
The performers are all people of colour, and at one point, one boy jokes that they’re exoticising their heritage. But really, this is a cross-section of British masculinity that’s been shaped over time by a whole host of cultures. They pay homage to the bravery of their ancestors, acknowledging how the selflessness of their parents has made them who they are today.
Boys comes at a time where traditional ideals of masculinity are being challenged by TV shows like Queer Eye. And it works in a similar way, busting stereotypes with an honest portrayal of what it means to grow up in Britain today, as moving and truthful as it is humorous and powerful. This is masculinity in its purest form – there’s nothing toxic about it.