Charles Spencer reviews Boys Will Be Boys at The Mill at Sonning
I've always felt a bit sorry for Simon Williams, a matinee idol in an age when matinee idols no longer exist. If he'd been lucky, he might have finessed his success as the romantic lead in Upstairs Downstairs all those years ago into the kind of fame Hugh Grant now enjoys. He has the looks, the charm, the style. Unfortunately it never quite happened, and he is now reduced to appearing in terrible tosh like this.
Williams clearly isn't one to hide his light under a bushel. Not only does he star in this witless comedy, he is also its author and director. Who does he think he is, one wonders - Noel Coward? Well, perhaps he does. There is a character in Boys Will Be Boys who is the most blatant steal from Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit I have ever encountered, a turbaned old boot who is constantly organising seances and excitedly commenting on people's auras. She is called Letitia Butters, a name that somehow tells you almost everything you need to know about this play.
As you watch the piece, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Williams heartily wishes the last 50 years of theatre had never happened - that John Osborne had never looked back in anger, that Pinter had never invented cryptic menace, that Ayckbourn had never written comedies that were intelligent and moving as well as funny.
Boys Will Be Boys takes us back to an age when many playwrights seemed to believe that the sole aim of theatre was to allow an audience to pass a couple of hours as harmlessly, and as futilely, as possible. And I don't think you can really understand just how futile theatre can be until you have sat through this footling comedy.
Williams plays Lenny, an unassuming statistician living in suburban comfort in Twickenham, where he has brought up a teenage daughter alone after being abandoned by his wife.
But Lenny has a secret. He is also the author of bestselling romantic fiction, written under the nom de plume of Myrtle Banbury, who he pretends is his aunt. When circumstances require, he gets up in drag as Myrtle, stuffing doughnuts into his bra and putting on a performance that is like watching Edna Everage deprived of both malice and wit.
What's weird about this play is its complete detachment from any recognisable form of reality. Everyone speaks in a jocular artificial manner that is clearly meant to be funny, but isn't. Attempts at epigrams - "Lenny's attitude to sex was always more frantic than tantric" - shrivel up and die a horrible death even as they are uttered.
The action never achieves the giddying farcical pace it so desperately requires. And amid all the duff jokes and relentless bonhomie, there are squirm-inducing moments of sentimentality as Lenny moons after his absconding wife and worries about his daughter who has just got herself pregnant.
The pity of this theatrical equivalent of vanity publishing is that Williams is actually a rather good actor. There are glimpses of hurt and pent-up English reserve in his performance that might have been touching if the play itself weren't so dire.
The rest of the cast, however, sink forlornly in a sea of third-rate reppy tat, trying and failing to make sense of characters that don't really exist, and to cope with jokes you can see coming a mile off in a plot of doggedly humourless absurdity.
The director Peter Brook once coined the phrase "deadly theatre". Here it is, in all its deeply embarrassing awfulness.
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Last updated on 27th of July 2003.