Writer: Anna Jordan
Director: Ned Bennett
Reviewer: Hannah Hiett
You might find a story like this on the front page of the Metro, any day of any week – a child does something so horrific, so evil, so adult that it defies belief. You might wonder, for a moment, “How was this possible – how did this child get so messed up? What kind of life has he had? Where were his parents?” then, you’ll turn the page…
Anna Jordan’s Yen doesn’t let you turn the page, it doesn’t let you forget the circumstances that are often responsible for terrible acts, it shines. Brimming with humanity, humour and heartache, this is the story of two children left to grow up alone.
Hench (Alex Austin) is 16 and Bobbie (Jake Davies) is 13. They live on a dingy sofabed on a grim estate in Feltham. Theirs a twilight world where the curtains are always closed so the glare of the sun doesn’t reflect off the screen while they’re shooting enemies on the Playstation or watching porn on Redtube. Their isolation is brilliantly illuminated by Giles Thomas’ under-water porn soundscape.
Hench doesn’t bother with school “it’s boring innit” and Bobbie, who suffers from ADHD, is supposed to go a special educational unit. He went a couple of times, then sacked it off. No one checks up on either of them, they are left alone with their dog Taliban, who they keep locked in their own bedroom.
The energy between Austin and Davies is electric. Their sense of fraternity is so real, their characterisation so flawless that, despite the rows of people sitting on two sides of the performance space, it is easy to forget they are actors and that you aren’t sitting in the corner of their living room, watching their lives unfold.
Pamela Donald (fight director) and Polly Bennett (movement director) deserve applause – the barely contained testosterone that gives the play it’s atmosphere of something always being about to break, is due to the animal grace of their choreography. The boys range about their dark little space like caged tigers, like the ‘vicious’ Taliban trapped and lonely in the next room.
Jake Davies as Bobby is a coiled spring of burgeoning testosterone. He doesn’t seem to know if he’s laughing or tussling with Hench from one moment to the next… always high as a kite, perpetually kind, teasing, foul-mouthed and childishly loyal, the contrast between his naivety and his vulgar, adult humour (and lifestyle) carefully treads the line between shocking and hilarious throughout the first half of the play. In contrast, Austin’s Hench is reserved, a little bitter, long-suffering and cripplingly shy. His physicality is perfect – awkward, gangling and malnourished he moves with a skinny lack of grace, a quick, suspicious turn of the head and a contained violence. He is Bobby’s keeper, the one who holds him down when Jen storms into their flat, an intruder, and a ray of sunshine.
Anna Jordan has said about Yen; “ I’m fascinated by what would happen to a person if they never learned to express themselves. I think it’s where a lot of the world’s pain and violence comes from…”
Love is not in Hench’s vocabulary, not much is. His inability to express himself – in love, in resentment, in anger – serves some of the most tender and heart-breaking moments in the play.
Bobbie too, though he can talk for England when he’s in mood, has no way of expressing complex negative emotions except through violent loss of self-control, which eventually ends in tragedy. And it is a tragedy, you can’t help but pity Bobbie. Despite what he’s done, you’ve seen his capacity for love and the neglect he’s suffered.
Hench and Bobbie’s chaotic mother Maggie is played by Sian Breckin. Breckin makes a charming villain. She giggles likes a teenager, pokes cruel fun at Hench and acts like one of the kids when she bothers to pop by, booze-sodden, short of money and empty-bellied. When the play opens, Maggie has been away for weeks, staying with her boyfriend ‘minge-face Alan’. Bobbie, almost oedipally in love with his mother, always keeps a hopeful bottle of lucozade by the sofabed, ready for when she comes home on a drunken, diabetic low.
When crusading animal-lover Jen (a wonderfully sympathetic Annes Elwy) charges into their world, she turns it upside-down. She brings with her hope – the possibility of education, adventure, romance – of joining the world outside. The first half of the play is characterised by lightness – an almost hysterical sense of breaking out, of breaking free. The ugliness of the second half is made all the more tragic by comparison, because we’ve learned about the humanity, neglect, hope and disappointment that lies behind the shock headlines.
Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood Prize-winning play is an absolute triumph. Her writing is witty, honest and profoundly moving. She is one to watch.
Runs until Sat 7 March 2015 | Photo: Jonathan Keenan