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Ben Jennings

The new post-austerity play Boy hits the Almeida Theatre

8 April 2016 Natasha Sutton-Williams

Political playwright Leo Butler sat down with London Calling to discuss the premiere of his new play Boy at the Almeida Theatre. This theatrical portrait of a post-austerity Britain follows an underprivileged seventeen-year-old boy as he walks the streets of London trying to find connection in a world where he isn’t acknowledged, wanted or valued.

London Calling: What inspired you to write this play?  

Leo Butler: I live in south east London and there was this teenage boy who I kept seeing. He had obviously just left school or was about to leave. I’d see him everywhere and think, ‘What’s he doing?’ He was a striking character, he didn’t seem like someone who easily fit in, he was just floating around. Then the London riots happened which was such a wake up call to everyone. That was the turning point for me. I wondered where would this boy be within the riots? He probably wouldn’t even be there but he is part of that sense of having no other action other than to lash out, smash windows and say ‘We are here’. He is part of that but probably so lost he would just stumble upon it. The riots were in the background of the first draft I wrote. It developed from there. I realised I didn’t want it to be a ‘London riots’ play. I wanted to explore what was interesting about what happened at that time but still concentrate on this character of Liam and see everything from his eyes.

 

LC: Liam is unremarkable yet completely likeable as a character. What were your intentions when writing him?

LB: The tricky thing was to not have Liam descend into a life of crime or to poetise his poverty. He hasn’t got any particular talents, maybe he would if he was given some investment but there isn’t any for him. Maybe he doesn’t have any particular talent anyway. He’s just an ordinary kid. I was trying to be as truthful as possible and not to make things easy for him, because it’s not easy for a lot of kids like Liam. He doesn’t walk into any situation where he wants to antagonise anyone. He wants to be useful, good, liked; the things we all want. He takes on the behaviour and language of the people he meets because he thinks that’s the way you’re supposed to act.   

 

LC: In Boy every character feels the economic hardship of contemporary Britain. How focused were you on writing a political piece?

LB: I didn’t write the play to be an attack on the present government but it kind of is. What I wanted was for people to be able to see the world through this seventeen-year-old boy’s eyes and have some understanding and empathy towards him. There’s been such a demonisation of kids like this so I wanted to show the reality. I wanted to show a portrait of the underprivileged because there’s been a real imbalance in representation over the last few years. The present government’s stance on welfare is absolutely appalling so to try and highlight that and to show the consequences of how these policies are impacting boys like Liam. They are dangerous consequences because it doesn’t just create people who smash up shop windows, it doesn’t necessarily criminalise people, it becomes the everyday routine for people who have nothing to do because there’s nothing for them. The corroding effect on them psychologically, emotionally, spiritually is vast. If the welfare policy continues as it is, it’s just going to get worse and worse. It’s not simply affecting teenagers like Liam, it’s affecting whole families, disabled people, anyone that doesn’t have a huge amount of wealth.

 

LC: How is the Almeida Theatre working with young people during this show?

LB: We’re partnering with Arsenal in the Community to work with a group of young people and write some short plays and monologues, which we will put on with professional actors and directors at the theatre. It will hopefully engage young people who have never been to the theatre before. Maybe some will come with an idea what a play is but we want them to express themselves in whatever way they want. 

 

LC: You were playwriting tutor at the Royal Court for eight years. What is your process when working with emerging writers?

LB: I try to sweep away the cobwebs of what writers think a play might be and find the thing in them that excites them most. A lot of the early work I do with writers is almost like therapy, going into their lives and discovering what makes them tick, then finding a way of putting that down on paper so they can find that thing inside them that hasn’t been expressed. It might be full of holes, it might not have a story, it might not follow a formal rule but it does something exciting and can be extremely emotionally charged. Formlessness is the most exciting thing to begin with; then when you have a heap of material you find a way of shaping and presenting it. 

 

Boy runs at the Almeida Theatre from 5 April - 28 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Almeida's website.

 

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