Writer: Declan Bennett
Director: Nancy Sullivan
Unassuming as he obviously is, writer and performer Declan Bennett tells us at the outset of his autobiographical single-hander, Boy Out The City, that the play is “about gay shame and loneliness, not Covid lockdown”. Actually, this is an exquisitely observed, finely written, and flawlessly performed show about both, and a great deal more besides.
It is March 2020. Bennett is stuck in lockdown London with housemates whose only outlet for joy is endless online shopping. They are “Asos beasts” he tells us. His boyfriend suggests they move to a quiet rural village. With no auditions in sight and only “5 GCSEs and a B-Tech in performing arts” by way of qualifications to draw on, Oxfordshire seems as good a place as any to ride out the storm. The locals are welcoming; “You bring a bit of culture into the village,” they tell him, “but we think they mean homosexuals.” It is the kind of place “where butter forgets to melt out of the fridge”.
Then Bennett’s boyfriend gets sent on an unexpected six-month work assignment to America, leaving his partner bored, alone, and lonely in their country cottage. His only company is banana bread, Zoom, social media, and an 84 year-old neighbour. He would much rather be in Atlanta too, but that is not an option. Autumn hits “like discarded brown corduroy”. Frustrated with the daily routine of “write, bake, telly, wine, sleep” he sets himself a task: “make friends with yourself”. Easier said than done.
What follows is a complex, involving and very funny meditation on the emotional process of facing up to past demons, interspersed with religious angst and occasional visits to Hobbycraft. Bennett takes us through his schooldays in a tough Coventry comprehensive where, confronted with bullying, he sets about designing a new persona and, in the process, internalising the toxic homophobia that surrounds him. “Armour on and armoured up” he sacrifices something of his childhood in order to survive. “Suppress and repress,” he calls it. It is a strategy many LGBTQ+ people, in particular, will recognise.
Freedom in London beckons, as does a terrifying encounter with cancer, ongoing panic attacks, and a hedonistic sojourn in New York. We never quite get to see Bennett hit rock bottom. The tenuous hints of drugs and sexual excesses offer up so many narrative strands that early on in the second half it is easy to lose track of quite where we are in this character’s frenetic, damaged mental life. Alcoholic mood swings accompany an increasingly erratic choice of accompanying songs. Will this intensely likeably character manage to rediscover the boy that got lost in Coventry? You will be rooting for him.
Bennett’s first-class writing shifts effortlessly between prose and verse, just as the tone swings from broad humour to heart-felt pathos. Co-creator Nancy Sullivan’s direction is economic, witty, and clever.
This uplifting hour deserves a worthy place in your Edinburgh must-see list.
Reviewed on 30 July 2023. At Underbelly Edinburgh until 27 August 2023.