Features Q&A and Interviews Published 24 January 2012

Jethro Compton

On Belt Up’s most successful show to date.

Natasha Tripney

“I don’t think any of us anticipated this reaction when we first put it on,” admits Belt Up Theatre’s co-founder Jethro Compton. “I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that makes people cry.” But they do cry. Inspired by the work and life of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie, The Boy James is the company’s longest running and most successful production to date, and has been making audiences weep since it debuted at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe as part of their ambitious House Above project in which they took over and transformed part of C Venues.

It has proved a curiously divisive production, one with a tendency to trigger extreme reactions in its audience. Certainly not every response has been as enthusiastic as Stephen Fry’s (his tweet, “still drying my eyes”, helped cement the show’s reputation), but Compton believes this is to be expected as it’s “not a narrative driven show.  It’s more of an emotional journey.” Some people are less comfortable with that than others, he concedes, unable to resist a dig about critics “hiding behind their notebooks,” but for those who do connect with the production it often proves to be an incredibly powerful experience. In Edinburgh “people would come back a few days later to tell us they couldn’t get it out of their heads. We’ve been doing the show for so long now and are still getting similar reactions.”

The boy Jethro.

When The Boy James was first performed it was somewhat buried amidst a number of other shows which the company were presenting under the banner of The House Above, so it was only seen by around 300 people initially. Yet of all Belt Up’s work it’s this piece which has gone on to have the longest life. The production transferred to Southwark Playhouse in London in January 2011 and the venue is again hosting the show, though this time off-site at The Goldsmith, a nearby pub which the company are transforming into a by now familiar Belt Up space. Belt Up, for many of their productions, favours non-traditional seating, sofas and floor cushions, a soft-edged and atmospheric performance space. Or rather a space within a space. “It’s not site specific,” Compton says firmly. “We’re making our own site. There’s no point us putting it on in a theatre and then spending time and money making it not look like a theatre, we may as well put it on somewhere else.”

This use of space is integral to the kind of theatre Belt Up want to make. “We’re not a devising company. We have a script [in this case by Alexander Wright] and a director with a vision. The audience is part of the story; [in The Boy James] the audience are his imaginary play-friends. If a character looks at an audience member, we want it to be OK for them to look back; if a character asks an audience member a question, we want them to feel like they can answer. We want them to feel like they can interact with us and, with a long running show, those are the moments that make it special and keep it alive.”

The company, though still comparatively new, have already established a particular aesthetic, a recognisable style, one that ‘places its audience at the centre of the production’. They’re currently working on a revised version of their production of Macbeth to be staged in the vaults of a former prison beneath the streets of Clerkenwell, a haunting space they filled with melancholic wailing and the unsettling scrape of blade on stone. “We can do a show like The Boy James and a show like Macbeth and they are completely different, the space is different, the audience is different, and yet there is something inherently Belt Up about them both.” Though some of their stylistic devices can seem a little too pat at times, they pursue them with commitment and consistency. One of the reasons Compton believes that audiences feel so strongly about The Boy James is the way the piece denies its audience closure. “As with all our work there’s no defined end point. The play comes to an end but the story continues. The characters remain in the space.”


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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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