Sunday, 8 September 2019

YOUTH THEATRE REVIEW: Lost Boys - The Unity Theatre, Liverpool

“These are the small town gods”

Only they’re not. The characters in award-winning Formby actor-turned-playwright Luke Barnes’ new community play are a raggle-taggle bands of misfits - the bullied, oppressed, repressed, angry and despairing youth of a northern new town, a dried up former supposed oasis which now offers severely reduced opportunities and life chances. If this makes this new National Youth Theatre production sound like a stereotyped ‘grim oop north’ production, it’s really not. Despite the real-world darkness of the material, the play is leavened with a sparky humour - tart, sweary one-liners and physically zesty performances from a talented ensemble cast of thirteen – as well as a bouncing collection of songs from Kneehigh collaborator Dom Coyote, each one erupting periodically to illustrate the struggles of the individuals.

The play grew out of conversations, workshops and finally a performance with young people in Skelmersdale, and Barnes says he wanted to explore how place and gender identity affect who you are, who you end up as and your mental health. To this end, the play offers up a fast and furious cornucopia of stories, particularly emphasising how patriarchal expectations and toxic masculinity in working class communities – coupled with a culturally and economically barren landscape (there is just a cinema, shops and a Wetherspoons – and the countryside, teasingly just fringing the town) can lead to bravado, emotional stuntedness, violence and the potential to infect and damage relationships with women, to whom the men cannot articulate their inner turmoil.

The play also deals with issues of cultural expression and entitlement, exemplified by a wince-inducing satirical parody of a local director escaping to London, adopting middle-class artistic values & notions and then returning to his hometown – only to impose his patronising, autocratic idea of what the community wants, which is summarily rejected as ‘gay’ and 'wanky’ by his audience.

The climax of the play has a thrilling verve, with the final song a tremendous middle finger to the bullies at their prom, followed swiftly with a heartfelt, plaintive, urgent call to the audience, to the government, to anyone who can help: ‘What are you going to do about it?’

Zoe Lafferty (a director with a history of politically & socially engaged work) propels her cast to feisty and moving performances but the collaborative genesis of the play has affected its momentum: it’s less a play with a dramatic arc than a series of episodic, interlaced stories – almost a variety show - anchored by narrator/chorus Luke Carrington’s omniscient central character. The 1 hour 45 minutes running time is consequently without an interval, as where do you break if there is no strong or natural plot trajectory?

After a week-long run at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, there follows a series of performances in community venues in Netherley, Waterloo, Huyton, St Helens & Widnes, and it would be wonderful for this pertinent, buzzing, questioning and emotionally resonant piece to be taken out to further non-theatre, non-traditional venues, where it would find its natural audience. I worked in community theatre in the ‘90s in a small northern new town, with a largely working class company playing community centres, pubs, bingo halls and even buses, taking theatre out to people on their own turf, to the sort of audience that would not dream that a good night out could be spent watching a play, let alone feeling that they could afford the price of a ticket. I do hope NYT won’t let this sort of project become sporadic or even a flash in the pan; if you are serious about truly shining a light on the lives of non-capital based young people, a consistent programme of NYT workshops and productions is needed to be scheduled in culturally disenfranchised, economically disadvantaged areas with (that awful phrase) ‘low cultural capital’. Go on, NYT, I dare you.

Reviewer - Tracy Ryan
on - 5/9.19

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