There is little wonder why Anna Jordan won the 2013 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for this provocative and empathetic twisted-tale of two teenage brothers left neglected under society’s radar. Transferring from its debut at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, the play finds its natural home in The Royal Court’s intimate Jerwood Theatre Upstairs where the space is cleverly constructed, accomplishing a sense of entrapment – for audience and characters alike.
As the audience enters the space the two actors, Alex Austin and Jake Davis, warm-up into their roles by traversing the small space bookended by a claustrophobic lattice of scaffolding. Austin, who plays the older brother, Hench (16), stalks about on the dirty carpet and clambers onto a filthy foldout bed bare-chested and scrawny. Bobby (13), manically interacts with the environment, exerting his excessive energy by climbing the framework and finally settles with his brother as the already low lighting reduces signalling the start of the piece.
Staring into the ‘Connect Four’ lighting at one end of the space they watch porn, emotionless, which projects out in a panting soundtrack. This opening scene sets the tone of two socially unskilled brothers who have entered puberty. The sexual tension is broken and built upon simultaneously by the entrance of their, mostly absent, alcoholic and drug-addicted mother who seems incapable of looking after herself, let alone her sons. In a diabetic and drunken stupor she is put to bed and as Bobby curls up with her, Hench excludes himself from her and plays violent video games into the night.
The scenario seems almost too clichéd, yet Jordan makes use of her full-range of writing talents to convey tension and tenderness with a clear conviction in the truthfulness of her craft. This sink-estate setting, that David Cameron has topically been discussing, is universal in its inhabitation of, seemingly, hopeless residents that are resisting outside help for fear of reprisal for any past misdemeanours. Yet hope does appear in the form of Jen who enters on the pretence of helping with their dog, Taliban - who has been locked away for vicious behaviour. This unseen ’pet’, played by an electric heater that glows, growls and barks from outside the space, feels like a manifestation of the destructive affects that imposed isolation can have on social creatures; dog or man. A common connection of lost fathers brings the unlikely trio together and a tenderness develops that hits as hard as the social problems the family face. One of the most impressive scenes is the portrayal of Hedge and Jen’s ’longing’ to explore themselves and their bodies together which brings an intensity and is sensitively executed by both actors.
The rising tension of frustrated feelings and desperately missed parental support leads to explosives scenes of brothers fighting, nightmares and a doomed first-love-affair that is emotionally arresting – yet it is the brothers’ relationship that carries the play through the non-stop 100 minutes. The tripartite of the young actors’ abilities; the superb direction by Ned Bennett, who artistically delivers the tension-fuelled plot; and the authentic dialogue creates a play with a dynamic force that left me questioning the role of responsibility in terms of the individual verses that of society and the values of right and wrong.
Yen plays until the 13th February at The Royal Court Theatre where it is, inevitably, selling out fast but £10 day tickets are still available.