The Boys

Annie Stevens

SYDNEY FESTIVAL/GRIFFIN THEATRE: 21 years after its original staging, Griffin Theatre revisits The Boys and its impact is no less for the passage of time.
The Boys
The Boys is difficult theatre to watch. Inspired by the brutal 1986 rape and murder of Sydney woman Anita Cobby by five men – including three brothers – the play, by Gordon Graham, is savage, frightening and utterly gripping. It was first staged at the Griffin 21 years ago with David Wenham as the psychopathic main protagonist, Brett Sprague (Wenham later reprised the role in Rowan Woods’ film version). It attracted big audiences through the word of mouth from horrified audiences. This reprisal, under the direction of Sam Strong, has lost none of its impact over time.

Brett (Josh McConville) has just been released from jail for an assault charge and his family is waiting for him. His girlfriend, Michelle (Cheree Cassidy) – a tough, loyal bird who could be soft if she let herself – loves him fiercely and his mother, Sandra (Jeannie Cronin), is nearly beside herself with excitement. Sandra loves him and his two brothers – belligerent, stupid and childish Stevie who still throws tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants; and Glen, who could have been a better man but failed – desperately. Mostly because her boys are all that she has and she is ill and worn down through poverty.

Brett, a muscular, shaven-head thug who trembles with a sort of feral energy, has things to prove, points to make. His anger and yearning is barely contained and his presence is unavoidable. The BBQ that follows his homecoming is not a success. Instead it becomes a spitting, snarling dogfight as the family hurls endless cans of VB beer at the wall and the screen and garage doors are slammed constantly in anger and frustration. Accompanied by a clanging, screeching and disconcerting soundscape by Kelly Ryall, the effect is tense and unnerving. I felt physically ill.

The set of a stark suburban backyard complete with hills hoist, dead grass, corrugated iron and an esky is entirely effective in capturing neglect, poverty and hopelessness. After the unimaginable thing happens (never seen on stage), fuelled by hate whipped up throughout that BBQ, the effect it has on those left behind is harrowing. The boys are locked up or on the run, and the women who loved these men struggle with allowing themselves to believe it really happened.

It’s a very strong cast, all of them. Jackie (Louisa Mignone), Glen’s girlfriend, is particularly strong as the one who wants to better herself, and to better Glen. Her struggle with the truth of what he has done, and what he felt about her and women, is haunting. Nola (Eryn Jean Norvill), the child-like pregnant girlfriend of Stevie, is heartbreaking. She wanders about as in a trance, never knowing that things could be better because she’s never known them to be. And Josh McConville is brilliant as the savage Brett. There are glimpses of vulnerability to him but they are swatted away quickly. The effect that he has on his younger brothers and his worn-down mother is mesmerising.

There is little redemption from the grinding depression and horror of this play. Why do these men hate women so much? Why did these women love them? And yet at the end there is a small glimmer of hope, in women with nothing left who might somehow be able to make a better life. It’s certainly not a fun night out. But this play is deeply affecting in its depiction of base, cracked and ruined humanity. Unmissable.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sydney Festival presents
The Boys
Director: Sam Strong
Assistant Director: Luke Rogers
Dramaturg: Tahli Corin
Designer: Renée Mulder
Composer: Kelly Ryall
Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson
Fight Director: Scott Witt
Stage Manager: Edwina Guinness

Cast: Johnny Carr, Cheree Cassidy, Jeanette Cronin, Anthony Gee, Josh McConville, Louisa Mignone, Eryn Jean Norvill

The Griffin Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross
Until March 3rd, 2012
Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au

About the author

Annie Stevens is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and writer. She has written for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Vogue and Guardian Comment is Free, among other publications.