By Mark Bolsover
Belt Up continue to be an unmissable staple of the fringe. In The Boy James they return with an established show and a darker, harder and more melancholic counterpart to their other established show this year, Outland.
The play uses the Belt Up staple of a close, intimate, theatrical space, decked out with antique books and objet d’art, in varying states of disrepair. The audience—welcomed to the space by the play’s protagonist—is seated around the fringes of the performance space on battered couches and throw-cushions and is fully immersed in the performance.
The play is concentrated on the figure of its title, who may be a young boy (a powerful, vulnerable and endearing performance by Jethro Compton) and on his enigmatic relationships with ‘James’ (another great performance, including impressive voice acting, by Dominic Allen, who also directs) and a mysterious figure who may be a young girl (a cleverly ambiguous and quite sinister Serena Manteghi).
As with other Belt Up shows (perhaps most notably Atrium and Twenty-to-Nine in pervious years), The Boy James focuses on relationships and ideas, and not on clearly discernible narrative arcs. In this case, Belt Up present a deeply moving and enigmatic treatment of childhood, growing-up, (the loss of) innocence and the power and liability of the creative imagination.
The piece draws its dramatic power from its simple and yet suggestive dialogue, its potentially risky use of very stylized performance of character (particularly Compton and Manteghi’s ambiguously childish central figures) and from Belt Up’s signature use of audience participation, the latter working integrally and poignantly in this production, from the participation in the ‘boy’s’ games to the play’s heartrending conclusion.
Accomplished, dark, hard, at times obscure and yet deeply moving, Belt Up have produced a great piece of theatre, anchored in the performances of its superb cast.