The cast of The Boys | Griffin Theatre

Gordon Graham, the writer, is getting on a bit. It’s been 21 years since The Boys debuted at Griffin, where, under the artistic stewardship of Sam Strong, it’s returned, for an ostensibly sold out season.

In that span of time, most things lose their edge. Not The Boys. Inspired, or not, by the horrific murder of Anita Cobby, it paints a picture of suburban desolation, dessication, dislocation and disaffection. Three boys Oedipally attached to their manipulative mother arrive at a state of emotional aridity so acute they’re able to coach themselves into an alcohol-infused state of power-mad, macho euphoria.

Eldest brother Brett (Sprague) has just been released from jail having grievously bashed someone who dented his bumper. He may have served his time in the slammer, but he seems as imprisoned as ever by his own flaregun anger, paranoia and need for recognition. Middle brother Glen has done growing-up aplenty in Brett’s absence and, for a while at least, he exercises his intelligence and individuality, only to be sucked back down into the mire of Brett’s blood-brotherly hold. The youngest, (little) Stevie, is immature to the point of still having oral fixations. The bros are too much best mates for their own good. Or anyone else’s.

Mum Sandra has fallen into ill-health, but this is of comparatively little concern to her sacrificial nature. She lives for her boys and would, it appears, happily and unhesitatingly die for them were it required. Her body has been wrecked and wracked by the cumulative effects of alcohol, poverty and, probably, prescription and OTC drugs. She is, at once, an innocent, more capable of denial in order for her boys to remain golden-haired than even most mothers, and a Machiavellian agitator, maneuvering and corralling her offspring as if mindless merinos, which they too often seem to be. Like the voting public or well-known shockjocks, it’s so much easier to oversimplify, to blame, to vilify, to find an arbitrary, false focus for angst, frustration and injustice suffered. Women become their target. Deep down, their spectacularly violent crime is more than a mere cry for help, attention, affection or respect, more than an evil incarnation of the self-same ruthless ambition that propels Australian Idols or would-be PMs. It’s a colourful, larger-than-life (and death) statement of all they can’t say, other than via an habitual barrage of cliched expletives, to the women who’ve emasculated them, or who they (choose, or are deluded to) see as having done so. An assertiveness workshop, or paint gun outing, would’ve been so much less trouble.

The set (Renee Mulder, bravo!) is essentially dead grass, a hills hoist, an esky, an armchair and old couch swathed in poo-brown velour that intrudes into the audience, upping the confrontational ante of the play almost beyond the pale. A high galvanised wall, including a padlocked gate, ensures their containment and constriction, protecting them from the cruelty of the outside world and that they’re only too ready, willing and able to reflect back upon it. And us. Theirs is the kind of estrangement from mainstream, everyday society and opportunity known to detained refugees, the people oppressed by Al Assad, or countless others, across the globe and throughout history. They are the living embodiment of the poor getting poorer, for which the likes of the mad monk would have them blamed. Verity Hampson mimics the hard, diamond light of western suburban day, the dim menace of dusk and dawn and the outright blackness of night. The same contagious blackness that’s seeped into the hearts of this family, like a fast-growing, inoperable tumour.

It’s easy to see ourselves, the opening night audience of theatre critics, well-known actors and (gl)lit(t)erati hangers-on as utterly removed from this setting. It’s obviously how and where we’d prefer to be. And remain. But these aren’t fictional characters. You can, I contend, still find and meet such people, without any need for forensics. And today’s frustrated teenager, or adult, given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, chain of adverse events, can become tomorrow’s Strathfield Plaza shooter, or Port Arthur mutant massacrer. It’s in all of us. Have no doubt. Judge not.

Eryn Jean Norvill, in her debut for Griffin, is the (not entirely, as it develops) clueless, helpless Nola, hapless preggers girlfriend of Stevie, who repeatedly tells her to “fuck off!”, and he means for good. It’s evident she’s been stomped on, literally and figuratively, all her life, and is thus habituated to her submissiveness. Norvill thoroughly inhabits the role, to the point where you want to, by turns, counsel, coach and cajole her, help her to help herself, to lift herself out of poverty and up Latham’s ladder of opportunity; then you realise the putridity of your middle-class paternalism. She uses everything in her psychological power to persuade herself Stevie’s OK. OK in himself. To her. And for her. He’s not. He’s an emotional and intellectual embryo; stunted, thick as a brick, several sandwiches short. In portraying such, it’s hard to believe Anthony Gee could be any other way, which may sound like the worst possible insult but is, in fact, the highest possible compliment to the completeness of his character.

Louisa Mignone, also a debutante at Griffin, even if she has runs on the board for the likes of Bell, is Jackie, Glen’s girl, who he now lives with on and off. Jackie sees Glen’s potential and wants a better life, together, for both of them, but has made the classic Venus-on-Mars mistake of pushing a little, or a lot, too hard. Glen has bitten the bullet, but you can almost see his ┬átank filling up to the point of overflow. Sure enough, the inflammable spills out and quickly catches alight, ignited by predictable family meteorology. Mignone seems comfortable in her assumed skin and hers is a very unaffected performance, unlike the rather more mannered, studied, but nonetheless outstanding delivery, by Jeanette Cronin, of matriarch Sandra.

Cronin’s turn is all the more piquant for the fact that while she wasn’t there in the very beginning (when The Boys was little more than a glint in Graham’s eye, at the ’88 Playwrights’ Conference, where a verbal conflagration flared over the work. It was an heroic director, Alex Galeazzi, who had the intestinal fortitude to surmount the controversy and produce the play), she was in ’98, when its adaptation for the screen afforded her the role of Jackie. As Sandra, she’s so contemptible, my theatre buddy was keen to see her killed off. As with Gee’s adopted idiocy, I argue this as concrete evidence of a ripely and richly realised role.

Josh McConville is transformed as Brett (just look at his headshot). Wiry-but-muscular, tattoed, shaved and dangerous. I couldn’t help wondering what it must take to get into character. And out of it. As he stood alone at the bar afterwards, I feared his sausage roll might be jammed down someone else’s throat rather than quietly devoured via his own. His eyes are enough to carry the latent violence (and sadness) of the eldest Sprague sprog. His fists, slamming against the resonant galvo fence, only but add to the pulse-quickening, bolstered by Kelly Ryall’s disturbing composition, so excruciatingly loud Griffin’s epidermal renos threatened to give way. The fight scene, choreographed by the ubiquitous Scott Witt, was so consummately feigned it seemed impossible neither McConville or John Carr (Glen) wan’t seriously hurt.

Carr is quite sensational, too, in differentiating himself as the more thoughtful, sensitive, individuated brother, trying to transcend his past, his present, the brotherhood and motherhood. In the end, tragically, he fails. Finally, Cheree Cassidy is solid as a rock, also, as Brett’s brave, conflicted and complex concubine, the fiercely loyal Michelle.

Directors Sam Strong and Luke Rogers (assistant) couldn’t have opened Griffin’s season, or Sydney’s new year in theatre, more powerfully, or memorably. Knockout play. Knockout cast. Knockout production.

The details: The Boys plays Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until March 3 as part of the Sydney Festival. Tickets on the company website.

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