Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 27 January 2012

The Boy James

The Goldsmith ⋄ 25th January – 11th February 2012

An emotional journey.

Stewart Pringle

Now almost two years old, The Boy James, Belt Up’s surprise greatest hit, the play which reduced Stephen Fry to tears, has arrived in a small pub dining room in Southwark. Belt Up have transformed the space into a child’s den of cushions, drapery and bric a brac, where the story of a young boy’s innocent adventures and the day when the adventuring dies unfolds before us.

Ostensibly the story of Peter Pan creator J M Barrie, it is no biopic, but rather a loose and elegiac parable of the loss of innocence and playtime’s end. The range of reactions The Boy James has generated since its debut in 2010 suggests that critics and audiences are either swept away on its emotional journey or left out in the cold wondering what everyone else is crying about, unfortunately I fell into the latter camp, but even if you’re not dragged along on James’s voyage, there’s still plenty to enjoy.

The setting is simple but remarkably effective, there is pure joy in the opening moments in which the Boy James (company co-founder Jethro Compton) guides you to a cushion around the strange but cosy room and encourages us to make friends. Even the stiffest audience members are soon playing along with games of tag and wink murder, this opening perfectly encapsulates Belt Up’s admirable skill in drawing the audience into complicity with the performers and direct engagement with the narrative. So much fun is the opening, in fact, that it’s almost disappointing when the story proper begins, even more so in that it never really takes off, that it never seems as urgent or sincere as the early jokes and games.

The entrance of a strange girl (Serena Manteghi) and James’s adored playmate (Dominic Allen) begins the breakdown of the childish wonderland, and though both performances are well-pitched and their initial interactions suitably jarring and intriguing, the piece begins to descend into a parable of growing up which is just too obvious and well-trodden to sustain real suspense or interest. Strains of Peter Pan emerge throughout, but where Barrie’s play is grounded in the tension between the real adult world of   Mr Darling’s household and the free-wheeling fantasy of Neverland, here the grown-up universe is oblique and the fantasy land too vague. The Boy James’s descriptions of his adventures are delivered with such breathless whimsy that they become confusing or even grating, while the adult world of whiskey decanters, briefcases and emergent sexuality is too broadly sketched. Compton’s James is a sort of weakling Peter Pan, but without a Wendy character to anchor the world in that childish common sense of Barrie’s play, the talk of fantastic adventures becomes cloying and unconvincing.

The story’s arc becomes too plain too soon, and the measured pacing and increasingly spartan dialogue leaves much of the second half floundering. Compton’s interaction with Allen in particular takes a long time to say very little. Tedium is an occupational hazard of the parable, and unfortunately it strikes here on more than one occasion.

That’s not to say Belt Up play it safe. Manteghi is masterfully unnerving as the girl who brings sexuality crashing through James’s pre-pubescent idyll, and as her playful naughtiness swings drunkenly into obscenity there is a genuine sense of shock and discomfort. Several audience members averted their eyes entirely, and the impression of violation and confusion is perfectly captured by Compton. As a commentary on Barrie’s own muddled sexual politics it is the emotional crux of the show, but this is a (no doubt intentionally) unreconstructed image of woman as malicious oversexed temptress, the Eve of the playroom, and makes for disturbing viewing. 

The design is sumptuous and detailed, and this is a neat and polished production which takes some real risks. Belt Up are a company who take a bold approach to theatrical experiment without lapsing into self-indulgence and without losing sight of their audience, and The Boy James is no exception. It may not always succeed in capturing the bittersweet nostalgia it aims for, but it’s a worthwhile hour nonetheless. It’s not for everyone, but you never know: it might just sweep you away.

Read the Exeunt interview with Belt Up’s Jethro Compton.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

The Boy James Show Info


Produced by Belt Up/Jethro Compton

Directed by Dominic Allen

Written by Alexander Wright

Cast includes Jethro Compton, Serena Manteghi, Dominic Allen

Link http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

Running Time 1 hr 5 mins (no interval)

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