London is one of the most exciting cities in the world but it can also be one of the loneliest. Leo Butler's new play Boy, about to open at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, explores the city through the eyes of a white, working-class 17-year-old adolescent who does not seem to fit in anywhere. A portrait of contemporary multicultural London, it follows the title character Liam on a rambling journey from his home in the south-east of the city to the West End and back, as he tries to find his place in society.
But he always falls between the cracks.
Though now well-established as a writer of keenly observed socio-political chronicles, Butler himself knows what it is like to be an outsider. Speaking with a soft Yorkshire accent he recalls: "I moved to London from Sheffield in 1993 when I was 18, and I can remember wandering around aimlessly. My roots are in the north though having lived here more than half my life I'm an adopted Londoner. But what does being a Londoner even mean? Not cockney because they are a small minority these days; this is a global city-state in many ways separate from the rest of the country. Thriving, yes, but also with huge problems — and I wanted to write about those on the fringes."
I wanted to write a real London play that's on the move, which reflects a rich cultural mix but also increasing divisions and social inequality.
Butler's 2008 play Faces in the Crowd is about northerners coming to London and regional/metropolitan cultural differences, also reflecting the mood of those credit crunch times. Boy, on the other hand, captures the zeitgeist of the current austerity period, the sense of precarity and uncertain future that troubles so many people here. Butler says: "I live in the Crystal Palace/Gipsy Hill area, which has a lot of ethnic and class diversity, as well as growing gentrification. I wanted to write a real London play that's on the move, which reflects a rich cultural mix but also increasing divisions and social inequality."
Butler actually started writing the play at the time of the riots in 2011 "about a teenage boy from a similar background to many of the youngsters who were smashing windows and so on, but by the second or third draft the riots faded out of view. He is near the bottom of the ladder: he’s left school without any qualifications, he can’t get work, his family can’t really support him, while his friends have moved on – and he’s not a Billy Elliot with a special talent waiting to be released!"
As Butler developed the play the peripheral characters became more important so that a cross-section of London society is featured, including business executives, professionals, hipster students, bouncers, drug dealers and homeless people, as Liam moves from overflowing doctor's waiting room to noisy bus stop, and from conflict-riven JobCentre to crowded train. "Everyone is under economic pressure, even those who are higher up the social scale. And people tend not to interact with each other, but to stay in their own 'zone', staring at the screens of their smartphones or whatever."
The play is far from all doom and gloom, however. There is a lot of humour in Butler's writing, especially around social-media-obsessed schoolgirls and 'yoof speak', which sometimes leads to hilarious inter-generational misunderstanding. The use of multicultural London English, or hybrid Jafaican slang, of course reflects the extraordinary cosmopolitan nature of the capital. And Butler admits that he received "some help from the youngsters in the cast about certain words that I thought were still used but that are apparently completely out of date!"
I received some help from the youngsters in the cast about certain words that I thought were still used but that are apparently completely out of date!
The Almeida production boasts a cast of 26 actors playing about 85 speaking and non-speaking characters, including a large number of young people making their professional stage debut in the ensemble, led by Frankie Fox in the title role. The long-established, innovative partnership of director Sacha Wares and designer Miriam Buether (who were responsible for transforming the Almeida last year for Mike Bartlett’s provocative play about the housing crisis, Game) is apparently reshaping the auditorium for Boy.
And Butler promises that the lighting and sound design will also come together to create a strong sense of travelling through the cityscape of London. A place where it’s easy to be alone in a crowd.
Boy is on at Almeida Theatre, Islington, N1 until 28 May. Tickets £10-£38.