THEATRE REVIEW: Boo (at the Oval Theatre, London)

By Tola Ositelu

Boo is the poignant tale of a mentally impaired man who lives with his disgruntled but loving older brother Benny in a flat – or maisonette according to the protagonist – on a nameless estate, in a nameless city. Christened Beau by his parents, Boo’s neighbours soon brandish him with the infamous moniker due to his elusive existence and the myriad rumours surrounding him, (including the alleged knifing of his brother), reminiscent of the Boo Radley character in Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird.

Benny, fearing for Boo’s safety due to his vulnerability, forbids his younger brother from going out. Boo entertains himself by making scrapbooks from newspaper cuttings. He likes consistency and is adverse to even the smallest of change, whether it’s having chips for dinner instead of a home-cooked meal, or his brother’s purchase of a new laptop.

Outside of the four walls of the maisonette a brother and sister while away their summer holidays skulking around, daring each other to knock on Benny and Boo’s door. Meanwhile, a young schoolgirl, Kelly Spanner has gone missing and hopes of finding her are fading fast. Boo’s fascination with the missing girl is reflected in his scrapbook but little does he know suspicious minds fear that he has something to do with her disappearance.

Boo is an audacious production on all fronts, in its casting as well as the themes it takes on. Written by Mike Kenny and directed by Tim Wheeler, the team have worked on numerous occasions with the Mind the Gap (MTG) collective, the theatre company behind the play. MTG’s objective is to level the playing field for learning-impaired actors giving them an opportunity to perform alongside non-disabled actors.

The spirit of equality is very much evident in Boo. Jonathan Ide’s turn as the man-child of the title role is heart-wrenchingly convincing. His personal experience living with a disability (Asperges syndrome, a form of autism) adds a richness to the performance that it would be very difficult to affect.

The set is simple and works perfectly with the inviting and intimate feel of the theatre. On stage are three large screens onto which various images are projected; wallpaper, the front door of the maisonette, a street corner, an aerial view of the city courtesy of Google and most notably, a man doing sign language. Boo manages to evince humour from the various characters’ vulnerabilities without ever mocking them. It’s a fine line to toe but writer, Mike Kenny, does it well.

Benny and Boo’s relationship is fraught but nonetheless loving. Following the death of their mother, Benny promises to look after his younger brother and their interaction is akin to that of Lenny and George in John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men. Benny, like George, treats his vulnerable companion with a severity that has a deep rooted affection at the core. Robert Ewens and Joanne Haines put in fairly assured performances as the brother and sister enthralled by the mysterious ‘Boo’ especially when one considers that it’s Miss Haines first professional production.

Boo tackles a number of subjects that pervade post-modern living. There’s the isolated existence all too common in Big Cities. Neighbours living in close proximity but knowing very little about each other’s lives. Then there’s the issue of children being told conflicting things about adult strangers as hysteria over paedophilia reaches fever pitch – particularly when a child goes missing. In an environment where the aforesaid isolation and paranoia collide, the results can be far-reaching and tragic-particularly for a misunderstood individual like Boo. Although these themes are not new, the perspective from which they are viewed in ‘Boo’ is a unique one and it takes a company like MTG to give it the voice it needs.

Boo is far from being flawless. The show is often let down by frequent, inexplicable gaps in dialogue and scene changes. A more fluid pace would have really done the production more justice. It is also fair to say some of the performances are stronger than others. Yet there’s a prevalent tristesse… something so emotive about the story and how the characters are portrayed, that nevertheless makes this a commendable piece of theatre.

Boo runs at the Oval Theatre until 16 May 2009. Tickets are £12 (£6 concs).
Please visit
www.ovalhouse.com or contact the Box Office on 0207 582 0082 for more details.