Review by Sandra Harman
Loosely influenced by the horrific rape and murder of Anita Cobby in 1986, The Boys is a disturbing exploration of the toxic masculinity expressed by three Aussie brothers and the effect it has on the women around them.
Brett Sprague’s just out of jail after serving time in prison for assault. Reunited with his mum Sandra and brothers Glenn and Stevie, he’s ready to reclaim his life, but things have changed while Brett’s been inside. Girlfriend Michelle may have moved on, Glenn’s moved out and Stevie’s about to be a dad.
As Brett’s disruptive force takes hold and he regains his ‘top dog’ position within the family, tensions flare and Brett embarks on an anti-female drink-fuelled rampage, sweeping his brothers along with him – with terrifying consequences.
Written in the late 1980’s by Gordon Graham and premiering at Griffith Theatre Company in 1991, there is a question whether the subject matter explored in The Boys is still relevant 31 years later, and how this play will sit with an audience in 2022. These are the two main questions, Director Cienda McNamara asked herself after being approached to direct. “Sadly, as much as we have moved forward and we would like to believe that we are evolving, the issues at the heart of the play - intimate partner violence, coercive control, toxic masculinity, and its impacts on all society - are still all too familiar…. We must bring issues out of the shadows to bring awareness to them and start conversations” and McNamara has done just that with her skillful direction, shaping this play into a piece that resonates with a modern audience without losing any of its original impact.
Although the play is called The Boys, it is mainly about the women – four uniquely different women bonded together by an unexpected crisis, trying to make sense of the situation, who have no choice but the find a solution together. They must work hard to find a common ground, to find a reason to stick together and support each other as the play progresses. The common link between the women is the boys, who as brothers already have a family bond, as fractured as it may be at the beginning, and it is this familiarity that re-unites them.
McNamara has cast well; as Sandra, the matriarch of the family, Deidre Grace successfully gives us the picture of a mother who has done her best to bring up her boys to be decent human beings despite the limitations of her family’s low economic status. Someone who is fiercely protective of her children and who, although doesn’t believe that they could be capable of such a violent and despicable act, is still conflicted – by defending them is she just as guilty of the crime? Sandra is a tough nut, but it was nice to see Grace give her an underlying softness at times. She is after all, just an ordinary mum in extraordinary circumstances.
As Brett’s girlfriend, Zoe Houghton gives a highly energized, skilled performance. Her Michelle is outspoken and brash contributing to the already mounting tensions when her contempt for Glenn’s girlfriend Jackie instigates family squabbles, and her moments with Brett go from passionate to volatile within seconds. Yet we never doubt for a moment Michelle’s love for Brett or where her loyalties lie, even when she is treated badly by Brett and disrespected by the boys.
As Jackie, Chantal Elyse has the unenviable task of playing the girlfriend that is the outsider, the one who has not yet been totally accepted as part of this family. This is partly Jackie’s fault as she places her status above the others in order to better herself and her boyfriend Glenn. Jackie loves Glenn but is she willing to stand behind him 100%? This indecision and self-preservation makes for an interesting character mix and Elyse manages to successfully give us a Jackie that although at times is quite unsympathetic, is still very relatable.
Rounding out the females is Leela Rashid as Nola, the young pregnant girlfriend of Stevie, who is the newcomer to the family clan trying to find the best way to fit in. Whereas Michelle and Jackie have fallen in love with their boys, Nola is just happy to have a boyfriend who doesn’t beat her. and be at a better place in her life. Stevie’s verbal treatment of Nola is possibly the worst in the play, and Rashid does an admirable job of showing us a fragile girl with very little self-esteem who will take that treatment in order to be at a better place in her life. We feel for her yet do not quite understand how she can stay.
As the boys, Stephen Geronimos (Brett), Samuel Valentine (Glenn) and Aidan O’Donnell (Stevie) work wonderfully together, showing us brothers who, when together, never quite get past a certain larrikin mentality. As Gordon Graham puts it “they have a level of emotional maturity that is, in some ways, stages down from the women. I suppose there are people who never get beyond some stage they got to, somewhere late in high school, if they ever finished it – the kids who were down the back of the classroom or would hang out in the playground jeering and smoking, and never quite get past that.”
Geronimos give us a Brett who is rough, belligerent, lewd and unlikable. It is clear from the beginning that Brett is back to reclaim his position as the alpha male and to re-assert his dominance over Michelle. His one year in prison has left him feeling alienated and suspicious, dangerously repressing his anger and frustration – it is fearless performance.
As Glenn, Valentine skillfully shows the two sides to his character, the likeable son who has kept things together since Brett went to prison and the loving boyfriend who supports his girl, and the Glenn who gradually slips back into the mindset of who he is used to being, falling back into the old patterns much too easily. The initial tensions that arise between Brett and Glenn are well played out between the two actors, and Valentine gives as good as he gets.
As the youngest brother Stevie, O’Donnell is like a needy puppy – all he wants is to hang out with his brothers, to be included in all they do but he is trapped in a situation he never wanted, lumbered with a pregnant girlfriend whom he doesn’t even care for. O’Donnell’s portrayal of a young man who is easily led, not always likeable and refuses to accept responsibility for his actions is impressive.
The Boys is a play containing a fare share of physicality and director McNamara wisely uses a fight director (Jason McKell) and an intimacy director (Michelle Miall). This has ensured that all the physical moments are fully and successfully realized.
The set for this production (designed by Genevieve Ganner) is highly inventive. A raised stage simply furnished as the lounge / kitchen / dining room of the house complete with solid front door serves the inside action well. Bedrooms are offstage and the playing space moves down via some stairs into the family’s backyard surrounded by a paling fence with a working gate, a letterbox, and the obligatory backyard sofa - all that is missing is the traditional Hills Hoist. Audience are seated within the Sprague’s backyard, sometimes quite close to the action and this works remarkably well, drawing us in as if neighbours invited to the family BBQ.
Costuming (also by Ganner) is carefully chosen to reflect, not only the era but also the personality of the character wearing it. Lighting design by Timothy James, and Sound design by Katie Swan is effective and seamless. I would have liked the songs played to segway between scenes to be a little louder to fill the space, especially as they have no doubt been chosen to compliment the action.
Volume at times was an issue with the girls’ scenes as they tended to be more intimate, but it is expected that this will adjust as the performances progress.
This is hard hitting theatre and a challenging piece for newly formed PIP theatre to choose as their debut production, and they do it well. The subject matter might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is an issue that still needs to be highlighted, and this is a production worth viewing.
The Boys plays Tuesday to Saturday until October 22nd at PIP theatre in Milton