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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ryan Gilbey

Boys on the Verge of Tears review – a whistle-stop tour of bewildered masculinity

Old school … Boys on the Verge of Tears at Soho theatre, London.
Old school … Boys on the Verge of Tears at Soho theatre, London. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Recent plays set in toilets have dwelt on the modern-day weaponisation of this communal domain. The neutral WCs in Public: The Musical showed characters of assorted gender identities conversing across the cubicles, while Overflow confined one trans woman to a contested space. Boys on the Verge of Tears, which unfolds entirely within the stained, sticky white walls of a brightly lit lavatory (four stalls, four sinks, four urinals), feels more old-school.

In a male spin on Rachel Hirons’s When Women Wee, five actors portray around 30 men and boys in a string of vignettes; the result is a whistle-stop tour of bewildered masculinity. No one here quite embodies a character with the same economy of gesture as the wiry, haunted Matthew Beard: with a cocksure strut or a horrified flinch, he can evoke whole worlds of confidence and neurosis. Calvin Demba shows impressive range too, switching from a shy middle-schooler in a tiger onesie (shades of Blue Remembered Hills) to a swaggering teenager and finally a clubber whose blood-stained shirt is a buzzkill.

It is in this last section, the longest by far, that the scope and slipperiness of Sam Grabiner’s play, which won the 2022 Verity Bargate award, are revealed. Peter Mumford’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound design also come into their own here, evoking an All of Us Strangers-style accidental encounter with ketamine during which reality jostles with hallucination. Are those first-responders or the four horsemen of the apocalypse?

The seasoned director James Macdonald marshals the transitions between scenes for maximum resonance. The leap between the first and second vignettes is especially well-handled, creating a pleasurable buzz as we realise exactly what Grabiner is up to. The writing doesn’t always equal the ambition: the final conflab between a man and his cringing adult stepson feels under-dramatised and on-the-nose. (The stepfather is changing his colostomy bag – dealing directly with his shit in a way that the other characters have failed to do.) Even after that wobble, a gently magical payoff brings the action full-circle, and hints that not all the men here are in the toilet.

• At Soho theatre, London, until 18 May

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