Physical theatre company The PappyShow devises its material through workshops, games and role-playing for its racially diverse ensemble, who have varied backgrounds and training. That approach explains some of the qualities of their 10-man performance Boys: part confessional, part standup, part community theatre, it is by turns taut, scrappy, hard-hitting, offhand, deeply felt – and always personable.
The vibe on stage is cheerfully boisterous. Since the piece is about young men and the relations between them, explains one of them, it might as well kick off with a commonplace: a fight. The vibe evaporates. In a viscerally choreographed and sickeningly recognisable scene, one man is singled out from the group, brutally attacked, humiliated and finally killed – by the hand of one other man, yes, but even more clearly by the dynamics of the group itself. The moment is later revisited in another impressively physical scene that now intimates the pain behind the pathology, with mourner and murderer implicated within the same dance of blind flails and staggers.
Other sections are more hit and miss. A competition with categories for “best Beyoncé” and “most shocked face” yields genuine if easy laughs; lineups with the men revealing fragments of personality and personal history are more intermittently engaging. The turns come thick and fast – haka dance, self-conscious comic, endurance test challenge, a teeter in pink stilettos – and the general ambience is jokey, blokey, sometimes a bit hokey.
Yet there are exceptional moments. One man’s solitary fury, vent upon kicked chairs, transmutes into the heartbreakingly simple song of a boy whose father has left. The closing image of brotherhood, the men forming supportive chains of linked limbs, offers a touching alternative to the opening scene. But the strongest counter to that violent beginning turns out to be of a different order: a kind of love scene. With tenderness, interest and playfulness, two men find ways of being together with each other – clasps, caresses, balances, flips and feints – that don’t turn into conflict, display or jokes. At first, you think they must be portraying lovers, but when they return it looks almost as if they are different parts of the same man, learning how to love himself.