Wolfboy, Trafalgar Studios 2

Teenager Bernie has been admitted to a secure hospital after trying to commit suicide. In the next room, former rent boy David thinks he’s a werewolf. Initially, the pair take out their pain on each other, but their abusive relationship gradually becomes one of trust, of friendship and love.

Crafting a musical around such dark material (originally a play by Canadian author Brad Fraser) means that there’s no danger of this work, by Russell Labey and Leon Parris, being mistaken for the usual frivolity one associates with the genre. And it’s just as well: there are none of your typical ‘show tunes’ here, no breakout eleven o’clock number that stays with you on the journey home.

Instead, we get an intense and claustrophobic tale, with an atmosphere helped by the diminutive size of the Trafalgar Studios 2 space. As the teenage patients, Gregg Lowe and Paul Holowaty spark off each other with such energy that, at times, it feels almost voyeuristic to be in their company.

As Bernie’s older brother, Christian, Daniel Boys is light years away from the adolescent sauciness of Avenue Q. Given perhaps the hardest role of the four cast members, not least because nearly all his musical numbers consist of singing to an unseen doctor, or to his unresponsive brother, he goes some way to showing that he’s capable of more than the usual ‘musical theatre leading man’ template provides.

The musical numbers were spoilt slightly on the night we attended by a lack of balance between the haunting pre-recorded backing tracks and the amplification of the live vocals. At one point, too, Holowaty lost both the tune and the tempo of one of his key solos. Given the discordant, disconnected nature of both play and music, such a slip didn’t feel as out of place as it would have done in any other production, but it was still the weakest point of the night.

As a fourth character, former Hollyoaks actress Emma Rigby’s nurse is an odd one. The only one of the four cast members to not sing, her character instead provides comic relief, often acting in ways that no nurse would ever do. But she shows a fine sense of comic timing, and a knack for finding just the right emotional pitch in a line to either underline or undercut a scene. In her first stage role, Rigby shows that she is capable of far more and I look forward to seeing how her career progresses from here.

The final scene descends into grand guignol territory, as Bernie’s quest to find his inner strength takes a terrible, and overly melodramatic, turn for the worse. But it works, thanks to Lowe and Holowaty’s commitment, and draws to a close a production that is not afraid to leave questions unanswered. You may not leave the theatre singing a tune, but your mind will be buzzing in other, more demanding ways.

New Boy, Trafalgar Studios 2

Editor’s Rating

Reviving his own adaptation of William Sutcliffe’s novel of adolescent lust and denial, director Russell Labey crafts a frequently hilarious tale of confused sexuality.

Gregg Lowe is effective as the obliviously attractive Barry, whose burgeoning sexual life drives the story forward as his best friend Mark (Nicholas Hoult) struggles with his feelings and his attitudes to sexuality.

Mel Giedroyc’s teacher, the only adult in the cast but who acts just as childishly about sex, does her best to steal the show with a riotously sultry monologue as she confesses about her affair with Barry to her sixth form French class. She nearly succeeds, but the fact that such an accomplished comedian does not overpower the whole production is testament to the quality of the rest of the cast, including Ciara Janson and Phil Matthews as the main characters’ siblings.

But it is Hoult upon whom most of the play’s burden rests, and here he shows a deft skill that elevates the role of the sexually confused Mark to great heights. He displays a fine sense of both comic timing and physical comedy that make the character much warmer and more engaging than he is on the page.

Hoult’s performance helps gloss over some of the play’s faults, most notably events near the play’s conclusion that jeopardise the friendship between Mark and Barry. Labey’s adaptation still removes most of the hints that, in Sutcliffe’s book, allow the reader to see what Mark cannot: on stage, Barry’s revelations are at least hinted at more strongly than in the original Pleasance production of this play, but this part of the story lacks the subtlety that infuses the rest of an otherwise great production.

Reviewed for The Stage

New Boy, Trafalgar Studios 23Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:58:07Reviving his own adaptation of William Sutcliffe’s novel of adolescent lust and denial, director Russell Labey crafts a frequently hilarious tale of…

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)