By Simon Fearn
There was a definite lump in my throat at the conclusion of Castle Theatre Company’s excellent performance of The Boy James. It was an experience quite unlike any other theatre you’re likely to see, and was by turns glisteningly imaginative, emotionally raw and occasionally difficult to watch.
Loosely based on the life of J. M. Barrie, Kate Barton boldly chose to direct the first revival since Belt Up Theatre’s critically acclaimed run. The space, the tremendous physicality and some electrifying individual performances made this a night to remember for those who shelved revision for a night in Neverland.
There was a definite air of trepidation as the miniscule audience were ushered into an even more miniscule room by an enthusiastic Boy James (George Rexstrew). The setting itself was a shock. It almost seemed like there was no fourth wall to be broken; the audience encircled the action in armchairs in the disarmingly cosy Castle MCR. Rexstrew’s first challenge as the eponymous hero was to remove some rather stubborn audience members from the sofa on which he would later be sexually molested. As he bounded off, the persistent ticking of a clock provided the soundtrack for James’ battles with adulthood and time.
The play got off to an unsteady start as the adult James (Hugh Train) brooded at a wall in silence. Rexstrew’s games also seemed a little bit contrived at times, although the audience were surprisingly game. In hindsight, however, this preamble was essential as an ice breaker to remove any remaining barriers between the audience and the action. Rexstrew handled a disastrous game of Chinese whispers with energetic aplomb, and demonstrated a knack for witty improvisation, responding to an audience member’s age with ‘Twenty! Woah!’ Jenny Walser as The Girl was immediately arresting. The way she held herself and awkwardly twisted her limbs made her utterly believable as a prepubescent girl, complimented by those haunting eyes. Her portrayal may have faltered very slightly in the early stages of the play, but this didn’t stop her blowing us all away when she came out of her shell later on.
Although marketed as an interactive performance, the piece’s real strength lies in the scripted conflict between The Boy James and the forces that threaten his perpetual childhood, symbolised by The Girl and the adult James. It was almost too intimate to be considered conventional theatre. Every detail was emphasised, from a violent glimmer of the eye to nervous, ragged breathing. The unfolding psychodrama felt tremendously private, especially with the use of soft lighting from lamps.
Rexstrew’s self-confident naivety made his failure to comprehend Train’s rejection of him heart-breaking, and there was a real sense of his delicate world collapsing around him with Walser’s unwelcome advances. The physical tension between them was palpable in the carefully choreographed scenes of temptation, culminating in that scene on the sofa. Walser had taken on the persona of a nine year old so completely that her cursing sounded both shocking and ridiculous, so the unlucky audience member perched on the arm of the sofa on which Walser assaulted a snivelling Rexstrew is, I imagine, permanently scarred.
By the time Rexstrew lay crumpled on the floor, sobbing in a way that only a child could, it was clear to see that a good percentage of the audience were reduced to emotional wrecks. But the play was far from done with playing havoc with our heart strings, and in the end it was the relationship between the two incarnations of James that left the deepest impression. Having an audience member read out a crucial letter was also a masterstroke, though this eloquent farewell did not equal Rexstrew’s visceral cries of ‘James! James! James!’ as he slumped against the shut door.
There were a few hanging moments of awed silence after the actors left before we broke out into heartfelt applause. It is a tragedy that only a select few will be able to see this little masterpiece (tickets are completely sold out), but those lucky enough to experience it will not be quite the same afterwards.
Photography: Flo Chater