Review: The Boys (PIP Theatre)

Samuel Valentine, Stephen Geronimos, and Aidan O’Donnell

Review of 12 October performance

Content warnings: Violence, partial nudity, strong coarse language, offensive language, scenes of binge drinking/alcohol consumption, ableism, adult themes, murder, and discussion of physical and sexual violence.

PIP Theatre presented Gordon Graham’s haunting suburban drama The Boys in October, directed by Cienda McNamara. Drawing on details of the 1986 abduction and murder of Sydney nurse Anita Cobby, Graham’s play scratched at the violent misogyny underlying ideas of masculinity and brotherhood in Australia.

Written in 1994, The Boys premiered at Griffin Theatre Company and was adapted into a 1998 film, starring David Wenham (who also premiered the role at Griffin) and Toni Collette as Brett Sprague and Michelle. This was the first professional production of The Boys in Brisbane.

Stephen Geronimos and Deidre Grace as Brett and Sandra Sprague

Established in 2021 by actor and producer Deidre Grace, PIP stands for Purpose in Performance and seeks to produce and program work that addresses social issues. Their season of The Boys was presented in partnership with MICAH projects, which delivers Brisbane Domestic Violence Service (BDVS), a 24/7 free and confidential service for people in the Brisbane Metropolitan area who are affected by domestic and family violence. PIP aims to work with emerging and established artists to program new and timeless work that combines powerful messages with definitive social action on issues including aging, disability, homelessness, gender equality, mental health, and family violence.

The Boys splits across two timelines, the leadup to and the aftermath of a horrific event, alternating between the two. Brett Sprague (Stephen Geronimos) is out of prison and returning to the family home, but things have changed – middle brother Glenn (Samuel Valentine) has moved out with his girlfriend Jackie (Chantal Elyse), youngest brother Stevie (Aidan O’Donnell) is about to become a parent with Nola (Leela Rashid), and Brett worries that his own girlfriend Michelle (Zoe Houghton) may have moved on. Brett’s hair-trigger temper worsens as he goads his brothers into an afternoon of drinking and escalating violence, revelling in vulgarity and recklessness, and culminating in a horrific crime.

Stephen Geronimos and Samuel Valentine as Brett and Glenn

PIP Theatre founder Deidre Grace starred as matriarch Sandra Sprague, a devastatingly devoted mother who believed the best of her sons to the point of self-delusion. Sandra loved her boys and enabled or ignored their dangerous behaviour, her whole identity wrapped up in her sense of loyalty and service to her family. In the aftermath of the crime, the women lied to themselves and to each other – for comfort, hope, and a sense of belonging.

The Boys addressed a wide range of themes around misogyny, masculinity, and violence in a suburban Australian context, with the titular characters objectifying and dehumanising women, expressing a sense of entitlement to their bodies and transmuting their own self-loathing and repressed emotion into a rage that they projected onto women as a whole. It also examined how ideas such as brotherhood and loyalty could become narrowed and twisted under these conditions, developing into one-up-manship and animalism, and touched on themes of crime, class, and social mobility.

Zoe Houghton and Leela Rashid as Michelle and Nola

Glenn and Stevie, especially, were depicted not as outliers or psychopaths, but as sons and brothers and mates with people who loved them. The women in their lives were dismissed and dehumanised, but enabled and contributed to their behaviour in different ways. A few tender moments between Glenn and Jackie brought balance to the aggressive energy of the work and there was an opportunity, in the play’s writing, to humanise Glenn and add more nuance to the depiction of men’s violence towards women. However, the playwright chose a different and more dramatic path. In many ways, subtlety was missing – not from the performances but from the script in the way that it had the three brothers debase and dehumanise women. In contrast, Cienda McNamara’s direction drew more nuance from the story, creating small moments that were deeply powerful in their quietness.

Intimacy direction by Michelle Miall and fight direction by Jason McKell contributed to a number of memorable scenes throughout. Lighting design by Timothy James and sound design by Katie Swan also created atmosphere and supported the long scene transitions, which included acoustic covers of popular songs, and compartmentalised the scenes and the jumps between timelines.

Aidan O’Donnell and Samuel Valentine as Stevie and Glenn Sprague

The Boys was performed with the audience seated on three sides of the stage. Entry and exit points close to the seating made the domestic drama all the more stifling, because you felt like you were sitting in the centre of it. Detail-oriented set and costume design by Genevieve Ganner was excellent, and added to the closeness of the work to the audience – floorboards creaked under a layer of carpet, the set was surrounded with corrugated iron, and one stage exit included a gate. Other small details, including a shelf of trinkets and scattered leaves in the backyard, made the scenes even more painfully familiar.

The Boys premiered in 1994, but thirty years later it still feels sharply resonant in modern Australia; a play about how misogyny harms men and kills women, populated with complex characters who were fully realised by the skilful actors portraying them.

The Boys will play at PIP Theatre, Milton, from 4 – 22 October 2022.

For ticketing and further information, visit the PIP Theatre website

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