Will Power, Theatre N16

Warning: This review alludes to the play’s ending.

Any man who chooses a life treading boards, in whatever form, knows a little something about masculinity in crisis. Real men, it’s understood, have very limited cultural horizons, are not interested in self-expression beyond socially acceptable norms like brawling and aggressive, animal-like fucking, and see women as props rather than people; certainly not an emotional being you’d interact with and learn from – a whetstone for one’s character (sorry, I can’t help objectify, curse my loins).

Toby Boutall’s play recreates this psychic prison with such fidelity that one can almost touch the walls and smell the faeces smeared thereon. It begins with the quintessence of boorish blokishness; men screaming “fuck off” at the audience, singing football songs and circling like pack animals. You hope the irony and self-awareness will soon spill forth and liberate you from Danny Dyer’s tortured id. But when the narrator and chief William, in a quartet of Wills – a band of brothers, a gabble of geezers, forces himself on an audience member (fingered as the boys’ mother) and the only female character is an unreconstructed flake, swooning at our reluctant hardon, we start to wonder. We’re right to; this is theatre, so there’s bound to be some learn’d middle class insight coming down the pipe, but curiously Boutall’s in no hurry to share it.

For much of its running time, Will Power looks and sounds like a theatrical recreation of one of those nineties’ Brit-Pop movies; wide-boy fests like Human Traffic. There’s a cheeky narrator, broad comic types as friends, a love interest, out of touch parents, and an eclectic soundtrack. It’s turgid and later we learn it was meant to be thus; just the repressed imaginings of a preening cock of the walk, who wants more, needs more, but doesn’t have the support network or emotionally literate friends from which to draw strength. He’s a typical man in the worst way; stifled and hopeless, without really understanding why.

But the structure of Boutall’s play, with this fundamental insight withheld until the very end, works against the material. Identifying with the narrator is tough, because for so long there’s little sense of the conflict between his persona and his inner monologue; there’s no incongruity. Boutall will say that’s the point – he can’t talk about it, but that lack of signaling makes much of the play seem shouty and superficial.

There are moments of high emotion in the events portrayed but they’re a tough sell when our storyteller’s so disengaged. By the time we learn the truth, we have nothing invested in that character, so feel nothing. Adopting flippant as the play’s emotional register may accurately reproduce the tenor of some male lives, but it robs the audience of its opportunity to see past that lie, become involved and ultimately share the pain.

One’s left with the feeling that the play, ironically, is stifled by its inability to speak truth to its audience.

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