Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Theatre review: Market Boy

David Eldridge’s Market Boy was commissioned for the Olivier in 2006, so the Union Theatre is a much smaller canvas for its first London revival; but there’s certainly something appropriate about the kaleidoscopic story of a busy market in the second half of the Eighties being housed in a repurposed row of railway tunnels. The titular Boy (Tommy Knight) first arrives at Romford Market in 1985 aged thirteen, when his Mum (Amy Gallagher) decides he needs a part-time job to make his pocket money. The Trader (Andy Umerah) gives him a job on his ladies’ shoe stall, which is obviously booming as he already has three other boys, Snooks (Joey Ellis,) Don (Callum Higgins) and Mouse (Joe Mason) working for him. And although from the start there are obvious tensions between some of the stallholders, the market is generally a busy and dynamic place with a lot of cash flying around.

This is the ‘80s boom that sees the traders practically worshipping Thatcher (Rachel Fenwick,) and soon Snooks leaves to become a different kind of trader in the City, turning his nose up at his former colleagues.

None of them are prepared for the inevitable bust, but the political aspect of Market Boy’s look at the ‘80s is secondary to a celebration of the decade’s excesses: There’s a soundtrack that doesn’t just take in the usual suspects, and a number of in-jokes; some of them fairly easy name-drop laughs, but I did like the blackboard saying the fish of the day was Marillion. I was worried at first that the cast might be playing it a bit broad for the intimate space, but they soon find the right level to take on multiple characters, flirt with the audience and bring a frantic atmosphere to life. It portrays an unreconstructed world of sexism, racism and homophobia, but for a 13-year-old play it feels slightly ahead of its time in its matter-of-fact depiction of a trans man (Taylor George.)

Some of these negative attitudes rub off on the central character, and as times become harsher Boy does likewise, to the point that it eventually ends his relationship with Girl (Claudia Archer) and puts him at odds with his mother; Knight manages to keep him largely sympathetic in a generally impressive cast that includes likeable turns from Umerah’s lothario trader, Helen Belbin’s arm-wrestling matriarch, Drew Elston’s PTSD-scarred ex-soldier who has a damascene conversion when he tries Ecstasy, and Michael Ayiotis as Boy’s gormless replacement when his time at the market eventually comes to an end.

Nicky Allpress’ production is a lot more comfortable with the play’s broad comedy than its darker undercurrents, so the suggestion of a child abuse subplot feels rather skimmed over, the dark turn the story takes as the market crashes is abrupt, and Thatcher ends up getting an easy ride as the focus is much more on the early successes of her policies than their harsh consequences. But Market Boy is organised chaos at the best of times (the first-act cliffhanger sees Trader fire Boy, which I guess we’re meant to infer he didn’t really mean as it’s forgotten after the interval) and Allpress has made a messy, fun evening of it. Besides, it turns out Eldridge managed to get the phrase “one up the bum, no harm done” into a main-stage National Theatre show, and what’s not to like about that?

Market Boy by David Eldridge is booking until the 11th of May at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Mark Senior.

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