It’s not always possible to see every play. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 39: Catherine Johnson’s Boys Mean Business (1989)
Now we’re nearing the end of September, the X Factor train is in full motion and hurtling the nation through the advent period towards that inevitable Christmas number 1 (sorry to mention the ‘C’ word!). While I, and I imagine many others, feel particularly jaded with the Cowell cash-cow, it is interesting to compare it with the old-school, cheesy radio talent contest at the centre of Catherine Johnson’s play. This simple set up provides a cypher for Johnson’s exploration of familial relationships and the inevitability of change.
Having been kicked out of his parents’ house, Will is sleeping in his brother Gary’s beach hut, scraping a living by dressing up as a scruffy cartoon character and posing for pictures with tourists. An opportunity to escape presents itself in the form of the visiting Radio One Superstar Show, however, both brothers have ulterior motives.
What becomes apparent is a clash between past, present and future, loyalty and success. Will, nearly 30, is the epitome of a man-child; a careless drifter stuck in the past. His greatest joy comes from nostalgic reminiscences of his Punk heyday, supporting Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Boomtown Rats. Conversely, Gary looks ahead, striving for financial security for his growing family – albeit via dodgy business with friend and local drug dealer, Elvis – while desperately trying to retain a sense of youthful vitality through his affair with the underage Dawn. There is a tragic sense that while Will has merely never grown up, Gary is undergoing a mid-life crisis at the tender age of 27.
Some of the details of Johnson’s play seem dated; the dramatic climax is accompanied by the song ‘Two Little Boys’, hence what could be a poignantly tragicomic scene, in retrospect has more sinister connotations relating to celebrity sex criminals such as Rolf Harris. Yet this datedness and discomfort seems to fit with the play’s overarching sense of fin de siècle. We are presented with the ceremonial end of an era; from Will’s simultaneously cringe-worthy yet admirable adlibbed lyrics to The Strangler’s ‘No More Heroes’, reflecting his disillusionment with the already outmoded Punk scene; to the family beach hut’s transformation into a blazing pyre, incinerating the symbolic and literal family bonds and business dealings enshrouded within it.
Furthermore, in a world where the Western media and perceptions of ‘talent’ are increasingly filtered through a SYCO lens, Will’s actions and irreverent attitude appears to be a heroic last-ditch attempt at rebellion, which, however pathetic and crude in practice, seems a bygone notion nowadays and retrospectively signifies the death of a more naïve (yet equally unwholesome) era.