The kids are not all right.

In what appears a campsite, a young man goes about his practical tasks. A rifle prominently propped up adjacent to him suggests he is engaged in hunting. His clothes disheveled and worn, his movements almost feral, the audience questions just what the situation is here, whether his presence in the landscape is temporary or long-term. His gestures are terse, efficient, focused. Occasionally, he alertly stares offstage, as if his sharpened senses have caught wind of some change of frequency in the environment, something slightly off. Turns out there is a figure, crouched within the brush, waiting to be drawn out. And thus the play proper begins.

Crashing into this stripped-back world of character Jake comes schoolboy Lyle, a motormouth of anxiety, edginess, and frenzy, explaining that he has walked straight out of his life just this very day into the high fells of the Cumbrian countryside. Questioned for more details, his reasons remain fairly obscure, half-formed ramblings. A wariness prevents him from full divulgence, as if he himself is still trying to process his own actions. He does reveal, with a kind of defiant casualness, that he has a boyfriend of sorts, testing Jake’s response to such a confession. When Jake seemingly shrugs off the mention, non-judgmental and hospitable, Lyle eases. The boys form a scrappy, contentious interaction, two lost souls recognising one another, stumbling towards a sympathetic embrace. Watching their carefully cultivated defences relax, their vulnerabilities coaxed closer to the surface, is liberating. Neither boy has ever kept such company. 

A pair of superlative performances anchor this intense study of abandoned, forgotten boys. Layered, shaded, Ned Cooper & Tom Claxton bring Lyle and Jake to vivid life. Quite without intention, Lyle’s predicament brings out a heroically protective, gentle side to Jake, especially in a haunting later scene in which the full extent of Lyle’s sad predicament is displayed. The usually taciturn Jake, who prefers silence, fills the stunned space with a running commentary if only to ward off the crushing horror of his witness. In this maligned creature he may see a reflection of self. Claxton hums with an almost-electric energy throughout the production, a raw current of buried feeling that slowly, charismatically releases. Similarly, Lyle’s agitated, suspicious spirit measuredly calms over the course of the play as he warms to a sense of safety & security Jake provides, a general acknowledgement that he may confess his full truth. Cooper communicates in delicate detail every gradation of his emotional thaw. 

Above all is the commanding & confident script of Chris Salt, sure-footed and purposeful. With rough-hewn humour, shocking incident and quiet potency, he charts a towering journey. Melodrama, for the most part, is sidestepped (there is, of course, some action with the gun that is a bit overheated, if narratively sound). No word is wasted, the pace is sleek, the drama urgent. He displays enormous empathy with his central characters, their feelings of alienation and being out-of-step with the world, their need to find home & place in an otherwise hostile universe. With just a few repositions of boxes & crates between scenes, Salt conjures up wild transitions of environments from warm campfires to cramped cabins to inclement outdoors. The relative confines of the basement performance space also work particularly well to contribute to the various feelings of constriction the characters suffer. 

Janys Chambers sensitively directs with watchful eye to every primal pulse and flush of the growing relationship as the boys easily (and sometimes uneasily) start to connect. There’s a startling and immediate physicality to both boys that is as dimensional as any other aspect.

As ominous helicopters roam overhead, a violent desperation is set off in Lyle. Their arrival sparks the latter stages of action. Earlier on, he listens with great distress to a radio news broadcast, Cooper registering every shivery note of fear as he takes in the consequences, pushed to the edge. 

In a generous Thelma and Louise-type finale, Salt honours both the romanticist and fatalist, the two young men dangling on a precipice. No matter their ultimate reckoning, the audience will not soon forget these two indelibly rendered human beings, their elemental tale forever embedded in the soil. Consider it a paean by Salt to two woeful, but extraordinarily resolute, spirits.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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