New Boy, Pleasance Theatre, Islington

When adapting any book for the stage, the original writer’s work, more often than not, gets diluted. Not so with New Boy. Director Russell Labey has adapted William Sutcliffe’s first novel faithfully, which unfortunately means that the novel’s flaws are magnified in front of an audience.

Sixth former Mark (Neil Henry) is drawn into a sense of awed fascination when new boy Barry, played by Leon Harris, arrives in school. As their friendship grows, the boys realise they have one big thing in common — their virginity. The main difference, though, is that every woman (and practically every man) wants to relieve Barry of this burden. The closest Mark can get, however, is a drunken fumble at a crass disco.

As Barry explores his newfound sexual prowess, he embarks on a dangerous affair with his French teacher, Mrs. Mumford. Once the affair is exposed (by the teacher herself in a brilliantly comedic and sensuous monologue from Heather Wright) the couple move in together, fuelling Mark’s jealousy – an emotion which goes into overdrive when Barry, close to the play’s conclusion, embarks on another affair even closer to home.

Throughout, Neil Henry’s Mark is a fabulous concoction of adolescent angst. Whilst his narrative monologues are occasionally gratingly overwritten, Henry’s delivery and acute sense of comic timing make the show. The audience is completely drawn in by him and, like his character, becomes tantalised by the best friend that he sees. Sadly, unlike the fictional Mark, we can see Barry/Leon Parris’ faults all too plainly: of the otherwise impressive cast of five, his is the weakest performance by far.

The relationship between these two young men is the driving force behind the book and the play. A shame, then, that it is not as fulfilling or convincing as it should be. This is due, in part, to inherent weaknesses in the source material, but responsibility lies also in Labey’s adaptation. In the play’s closing stages Mark is berated by his friends for being blind to the situation unfolding around him. However, the subtle clues in Sutcliffe’s book have been omitted, leaving the audience as much in the dark as Mark. While on the page we can recognise a young man whose introspection renders him blind and deserving of the name-calling he receives, on stage we are as confused as he is when new relationships surface out of nowhere.

Despite this criticism, the cast generally engages the audience well, with able support from Josh Neale and Clare Buckfield. In the main, the script varies from the witty to the hilarious, albeit with a convincing undercurrent of pathos. Quite why it was deemed necessary to shoehorn in so many late 80’s disco numbers to unsuccessfully create a sense of period remains a mystery. The character observations and the comments on schoolroom attitudes towards sex and homosexuality, surely, are as relevant in a truly contemporary setting, if not more so.

In short, Mr. and Mrs. Labey, your son Russell has produced a competent and not unenjoyable comic drama that fails to achieve the predicted grade. B-: could do better.

* Originally written for Gay.com UK (no longer online)

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.