Despite the presence of two women in Ella Hickson’s “Boys,” the title couldn’t be more apt. The irresponsible behavior of this bunch of twentysomething roommates means the last thing you’d describe them as is “men.” Ultimately, 27-year-old Hickson’s lack of structural command means the emotional punches in her eloquently written exploration of vanishing youth don’t quite land. But hyperactive dialogue driving the before, during and after of a night of partying creates remarkable energy.
Anyone who has ever experienced a shared student flat will recognize the cheap fixtures and fittings, pile of dirty dishes and general detritus littering the kitchen of Chloe Lamford’s meticulously chaotic set. They’ll also recognize the eating and, more particularly, the drinking and drug habits of this bunch of students and hangers-on in this Edinburgh flat.
Timp (zesty Tom Mothersdale) works in a restaurant but spends most of his time at home scampering about in nothing but underwear emblazoned with the legend “spank,” dropping “E” whenever the mood takes him. Cam (Lorn Macdonald) is further down the hedonism scale, largely because he’s a young virtuoso violinist on the brink of stardom. Mack (Samuel Edward Cook) is pitched somewhere in between; he’s the silent type who, as is gradually revealed, is up to something the others don’t know about.
Rounding out this awkward quartet is a watchful Danny Kirrane as Benny, who behaves in fairly slobbish fashion but nurses a conscience. Unlike the others, he is troubled by the repercussions of a seriously upsetting event in their recent shared past that Hickson goes to convenient lengths to hide in order to provide revelations for the second half.
Outside, the (unseen) heat on the street is rising due to a confrontation between police and local workers, who are striking over work conditions and won’t remove residents’ rubbish, which is piling up everywhere, including in this flat. Hickson uses this, in part, as a metaphor through which she can tie together Benny’s mounting fury over his roommates’ behavior and the play’s widening political concerns.
The somewhat stop/go pacing, however, of Robert Icke’s production doesn’t pull off what is already too theoretical a position. Despite the sincerity of the playing, Benny’s demands for political connection during the drug-fuelled party feel more added than organic.
The girlfriends, warmly played by Alison O’Donnell and Eve Ponsonby, not only provide the heart of the play, they point up the boys’ lack of emotional maturity. Providing sounding boards for the boys’ moments of self-examination, their presence tends to allow Hickson’s overarching themes to appear: Just how fearful are these youths of facing the world? Will their lives ever match those of their parents? Is being young as good as it ever gets?
There are levels of hurt in the writing that Icke’s production recognizes but doesn’t fully flesh out. Yet, thanks to the commitment of the actors, Hickson’s voice is definitely heard. That her voice leans occasionally toward overstatement is a slight weakness that increased confidence will curb. Her ambitions in “Boys” are not quite fully realized, but the range and sheer vitality of the writing is enviable.