The Boy James
Belt Up Theatre @ Adelaide College of the Arts – Tiny Lounge
9:00pm, Sun 4 Mar 2012
An usher coagulates the early-arriving audience members into small groups and guides us up the elevator to ACArts’ third floor; three corners, a winding corridor, and we’re standing by the door outside the Tiny Lounge (which seems to be a small re-purposed studio). Cast members in various states of undress push past us into the Lounge; attempts to sneak a peek at the room are met with much tutting.
Eventually, the door opens and a head peeks out – a young, boyish face, black tousled hair. After eyeing the waiting crowd, the pyjama-clad Boy opens the door and ushers us into the Lounge, which – with its armchairs around the four drape-covered walls, antique-ish furnishings, and collection of homely rugs and mirrors – feels more like a drawing room or study. The Boy seats us, then crouches on the desk in the centre of the room; his every physical movement convinces me that we’re watching an over-excited nine-year-old boy, rather than twenty-three-year-old Jethro Compton.
The Boy encourages us to introduce ourselves to each other, to tell each other our adventures; we’re a shy audience, and there’s not much action as a result of his instructions. He then announces that we’re going to play Wink Murder – the first guy nominated actually announced himself as the murderer, which kinda missed the point! A few more rounds, and then The Boy asks us to close our eyes: “keep them tightly shut so James will come.”
With nothing but blackness, my hearing is acute; I hear someone – presumably James – come into the room and sit at the table. There’s a grunt, the folding of paper. Then a gruff voice announces “this isn’t going to work,” and footsteps leave the room; we open our eyes and The Boy James is pointing at someone in the audience. “You peeked,” he accuses, and I wonder if the performance has been fucked up for the rest of us.
With my attention on The Boy, I failed to notice the entrance of The Girl. Slight and demure, and wearing a white nightgown, she stands mute at the other side of the room; once noticed, her coy stillness is utterly transfixing… for both the audience and The Boy.
But once The Boy recognises her presence, he scurries about, attempting to get her to play with him; she’s not really interested, though, and focusses on the whiskey decanter perched down one end of the room. When she first lunges for it, The Boy calls out in anguish: “Don’t,” he pleads, “it’s poison.”
James – whose bearded and formal appearance seemed to marry up with his gruff voice perfectly – returns, and again The Boy tries to play with him; “no,” says James, “I’m not going on any more adventures with you.” The Boy pleads with him, anxious for the chance to play; they struggle and, amidst their tussling – The Boy being playful, James being tired and reluctant – The Girl grabs James’ hair and slams his head onto the desk. James is out cold; The Boy is terrified.
The Girl sneaks a drink from the decanter, and soon thereafter she starts coming onto The Boy, physically pressing up against him. He squirms uncomfortably and pushes her away when she tries to kiss him; she stumbles into the centre of the room where she stands shyly, looking ever-so-alone, and utters her first words: “fuck me,” she says, in the smallest, most delicate voice.
You could’ve heard a pin drop; it felt like the air had left the room. The audience held its breath in stunned anticipation of The Boy’s reaction.
The scene that follows is uncomfortable as she accosts him: not only does it feel very rape-like, but my head was telling me I was watching two children. Once that painfully concludes, The Girl leaves; James, who had been laying on the floor motionless the whole time, wakes and leaves also. The Boy finds a letter from James, and gives it to an audience member to read – it’s nonsense, full of run-on sentences that seemingly have no structure, and no comprehensible meaning.
And then the door to the Tiny Lounge flings open and we’re asked to leave.
As I wandered into the night, I felt floored by what I had just experienced, but I was struggling to make sense of it in my own head. It felt like The Boy and James were one and the same person, that The Girl somehow represented the changes that The Boy goes through to become James; that seemed to agree with other summaries of the show, but then why did the programme refer to The Boy as Lewis/Charles?
In the end, I conceded defeat in attempting to understand what was going on… but nothing can reduce the impact of the experience of The Boy James. Compton is utterly convincing as The Boy, and Serena Manteghi’s Girl – pure innocence one moment and a maelstrom of destruction the next – is so good that my words cannot hope to impart her quality. Dominic Allen does double-duty, both directing and bringing the weary but strong-willed James to life, and…
Look, The Boy James was just brilliant. Not only is it a truly unique experience wonderfully told, but it’s not afraid to let the audience wallow… to give the audience something to go home with. But if I had to pick a fault, it would be my new pet peeve: the audience was not given the opportunity to thank the actors for their sterling efforts; we were just shunted out into ACArts. And that just felt… well, almost disrespectful.