Griffin’s Stables SBW Theatre has been transformed into a suburban backyard: ciggie butts and beer can shrapnel in a pot of dirt, dead grass underfoot, a tetanus hazard of a fence and a tired hills hoist at the centre of it all.
Brett Sprague (a head-shaven Josh McConville, all the better to see the throbbing veins in his temples) is returning to his home and family after a rough 12 months in jail. His sympathetic mother Sandra (Jeanette Cronin) and slow-on-the-uptake brother Stevie (Anthony Gee) are looking forward to things returning to how they were. His other brother Glenn (Johnny Carr) is less excited.
The return of the prodigal son sets off a chilling sequence of events. Glenn and Stevie fall into line behind Brett like pack animals, and the women in the boys’ lives – Brett’s squeeze Michelle (Cheree Cassidy); Jackie (Louisa Mignone), Glenn’s girlfriend from the right side of the tracks; and Nola (Eryn Jean Norvill), 18 and pregnant with Stevie’s child – find themselves in the line of fire.
The Boys intersperses the events of this day with scenes from the following months. There’s something agonising about that temporal structure. It’s like watching the cracking of the fault lines when you’ve already witnessed the horrendous aftermath. We’re powerless to stop it.
Playwright Gordon Graham had real-life inspiration for his play in the brutal murder of Anita Cobby in Prospect in 1996
– the Adam Cullen portraits of the killers
, hanging in the Stables foyer, serve as a creepy reminder of the face of that evil. But that’s not the only reason The Boys
feels shockingly, horribly real. The Stables is fast becoming the leading Sydney theatre space to see human behaviour under the microscope, and director Sam Strong is an outstanding observer of human behaviour in extreme situations (And No More Shall We Part
and Speaking in Tongues
in 2011, The Power of Yes
before that). The Boys
is no exception: under Strong’s guidance, the Sprague brothers’ accelerating trajectory towards an act of unspeakable violence is disturbingly believable, and the desperation and denial of the women around them reeks of authenticity.
Every single performer – pardon the expression – kills it. Nola’s doe-eyed submission, Glenn’s journey of self-destruction, and Jackie and Michelle’s struggle against the truth are all hauntingly portrayed. Sandra’s smiling delusion turns out to be one of the most alarming things in the show and Anthony Gee is near unrecognisable as Stevie, moving about with a loping gait, sucking his Playboy dog tag like a pacifier, but still menacing as hell: even a dim bulb can blow a fuse in startling fashion.
Josh McConville comes to the monstrous role of Bretty Sprague after a year largely goofing off in comic roles for the Sydney Theatre Company (about this time last year he was undergoing, er, rigorous medical treatment in In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play). But McConville is a whole different human being in The Boys: a hungry beast with a mad glint in his eyes and ‘DON’T TRUST NOONE’ (sic) tattooed across his back (a personal mantra or a warning to those who’d dare get close to him?). Even from the sidelines of the action, McConville’s Brett commands the stage. In fact it’s precisely when he is on the sidelines that we see how Brett dominates the people around him, and how his brutal art of persuasion works.
Yet there are fleeting moments when we glimpse Brett the way his mother would have us see him: some traces of humanity and vulnerability, unexpectedly stirring and rising to the surface – only to be suppressed and disappear without a trace. Along with Sandra, we register what we’re seeing just as soon as it’s over.
In the way that only a show in the cosy Stables Theatre can, The Boys feels genuinely dangerous. Open cans of VB are pitched like grenades across the room and there’s some hella nasty Blacktown-style brawling choreographed by Scott Witt. But even more glottis-contractingly frightening than that is the palpable threat of something awful happening – inherent in a prolonged death stare or the taking off of a belt. Until The Boys I’d never seen an entire theatre audience suddenly jolt in their seats as one.
Like Nola, slamming and slamming and slamming the gate in defeat rather than escaping through it, it feels like we too are trapped in the corrugated iron dominion of the Spragues. Immediate, confronting, explosive, The Boys absolutely grabs you by the balls, as Brett would say, for two-and-a-half hours. But it also gets under your skin. You may end up thinking twice about walking down dark alleys.