Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court
25 January 2016
The play that won Anna Jordan the prestigious Bruntwood Prize in 2013 has finally come to London, after a successful run at the Royal Exchange in Manchester last year.
Much like her previous work (Chicken Shop, Freak), Yen is unapologetic and explicit. Neglected by their alcoholic mother, two teenage brothers and their dog are forced to fend for themselves in a grotty Feltham flat. A bleak tale – yet woven with dark comedy – this is a bruising piece of theatre that delivers a huge punch of perspective.
Truanting and thieving for survival and booze, brothers Hench and Bobbie cage themselves inside a motherless playground of porn and violent video games. When young neighbour Jenny lends a hand and her heart to the boys, her affection threatens restoration and brings turbulence to the brothers’ exiled existence. Will they be tamed by her love, or has the savage grown too strong? Once again, Jordan’s writing captures our prejudice and shatters it across the stage.
The same cast from the Manchester run, these four actors have an authentic chemistry that goes from simmering to the boil in seconds. Alex Austin’s Hench is a haunted young man whose downcast demeanour hides a terrifying intensity, whilst Jake Davies’s Bobbie is youthfully bullish and untamed in his emotions. His adoration of their wretched mother Maggie (Sian Breckin) is a tale of pitiful naivety, yet Breckin manages to muster our sympathy through rations of tenderness and unspoken guilt.
Annes Elwy plays a delicate Jenny, but she has ghosts of her own and a strong resilience that makes her an equal with the boys. Her relationship with Hench is the promise of renewal that drives the play.
Georgina Lowe’s set should be admired for its minimal surrealism. The living room come bedroom is bookended by scaffold walls that provide both a climbing frame and prison for the brothers, linking childhood play to the rapid decline into crime. Their dog Taliban is represented by a small glowing heater that creates an unlikely emotional impact when mistreated by the boys. The games console and TV remote hang from large ropes, providing swings whilst umbilically tying the brothers to the violence and porn that raised them. Polly Bennett’s energetic movement direction and Lowe’s dynamic set is a harmonious marriage of ideas.
Director Ned Bennett does wonderful justice to this script, which never loses momentum during the intense 100 minutes with no interval. With the gift of a phenomenal cast, Bennett captures so much comedy that the dark existence of these characters explodes with colour. Typified by Yen, Anna Jordan’s catalogue of work is pioneering a trend for candid contemporary narrative. Her characters are abundantly flawed while still empathetic, and their relationship with the modern world is a marriage of dark comedy and struggle. Her plays are hugely important. See for yourself.