Sunday, July 21

Boys on the Verge of Tears – Soho Theatre

As a society, the debate around toxic masculinity continues to rage and curdle. The emergence of male social media influencers with unhinged and criminal intentions towards women runs in tandem with alarmingly low conviction rates for men who sexually assault women. Just 2 in 100 rapes recorded by police between Oct’ 2022 and Sep’ 2023 resulted in someone being charged that same year. Let alone convicted.

Into this worrying manosphere drops Boys on the Verge of Tears by Sam Grabiner. It offers no solutions, but by opening a a window onto the brutal evolution of boys to men, it certainly shows why we keep ending up here. Boys on the Verge of Tears was selected from 1,500 entries to the Verity Bargate Award, which is sponsored by Character 7, producers of The Night Manager and Culprits. It’s Grabiner’s debut production, but he is also the 2024-25 Writer-in-Residence at The National Theatre Studio and is under commission at Manhattan Theatre Club. He’s a MacDowell Fellow, and a graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme.

The prospect of an hour and forty minutes with no interval felt daunting, despite the accolades and pre-show hype. However, when one is in the company of a masterful ensemble, working with a sharp script and a brilliant director, it’s a refreshing testament to the power of theatre.

Boys on the Verge of Tears is set in a public toilet, with five actors playing over 50 characters who pass through its grimy doors. The first scene features a father speaking through a cubicle door to his petulant young son who’s attempting his first unsupervised urination. It’s comedic, touching and real. As the dad become frustrated, the child registers into his anger and retreats emotionally, eventually demanding his mother. Neither the boy, nor his father, achieve what they set out to do and both are poorly equipped to deal with that failure.

This opening vignette, then morphs into a dizzying collage of scenarios where a production line of male protagonists become progressively older and the situations ever more serious. Kids in a school toilet playing with knives, adolescent teens cracking rape jokes, gurning ravers in a club, sharp tongued drag queens and at one point, the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Matthew Bears, David Carlyle, Calvin Demba, Tom Espiner and Maanuv Thiara show considerable skills in playing such a wide range of characters. In lesser hands, this epic circus of masculinity might be confusing. The distinctions between time and space have the overlapping logic of a fever dream, but tight direction from James McDonald and excellent sound design from Ian Dickinson create a persistent tension and the necessary clarity.

The archetypal scenario where women support, confess and bond in the unifying space of a shared bathroom is flipped on its head with the opposite sex. Men who need comfort, refuse it when offered. There’s a consistent battle for dominance. More is unsaid than spoken and kindness is treated with suspicion. In the final scene, a dying stepfather struggles with a stoma bag, awkwardly assisted by his cringing stepson. It’s tender, brutally honest and sad, but in contrast to the rest of the play, it’s uniquely free from performative masculinity and the possible threat of violence. Facing death and managing physical decline, this man allows himself to be vulnerable and express his true feelings.

‘Remember to let the world in, whilst it’s still there for you,’ he declares to his stepson. This wisdom is too late for him, and his stepson isn’t listening anyway. The power of this exchange can be found in its simplicity, beautifully performed. Boys on the Verge of Tears manages to neither lionise nor sympathise with these men, but it shows us who they are. They are our bosses, fathers, kids, brothers and husbands. There wasn’t a man in that audience who did not see himself at least once. In fact, we watch the action unfold through a mirror that the characters are also looking into. They can’t see us, but often, we see our own reflection. A powerful, clever and bracing production.

Boys on the Verge of Tears is at Soho Theatre until May 18th,

Reviewer: Stewart Who?

Reviewed: 19th April 2024
North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.