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Boy Out The City | Belgrade Theatre

Initially from Coventry, Declan Bennett returns to the city with their autobiographical play, Boy Out The City, following its successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and on the West End. Starring (and written by) Bennett, the play shows how they spent their time in the countryside, alone, during the second UK COVID lockdown and were left grappling with their youth and identity.

The writing is incredibly well structured, with Bennett effortlessly falling into memories and reflections of their childhood, then being thrown out of them, these growing more visceral and intense as the play continues, as opposed to delivering a simple slideshow of events chronologically. Boy Out The City is most remarkable in the power with which its identity and atmosphere shifts from beginning to end. As it reaches its climax and conclusion, the audience looks back and realises how it's gone from extremely relatable comedy, a sequence about a craft shop being particularly funny, to an overstimulation of emotion.

It isn’t obvious in the themes what it will end up surmounting to - part of its transformative nature. The writing technique and dramatic devices achieve a hugely successful effect, with the piece’s climax taking the audience’s breath away as Bennett’s emotions reach a high (outstandingly created by the production’s semiotics). Though not wholly descriptive of what the ‘boy’ is that Bennett is trying to defeat, and why, leaving one with an element of confusion, the feelings the audience experience make up for this.

Bennett performs with an immediate relatability, effortlessly delivering the piece’s early comedy. Their diction is close to perfection, meaning the audience can hear the words they say extremely well. At the beginning, the rhythm of their spoken delivery and physicality has a slight disconnect between themselves, the text, and the audience, but by the end, they have grown into what they are telling, working up a sweat onstage. When the audience think that Bennett has been the most direct during the piece, they sit cross-legged at the front and centre of the stage, after being taken out by the climax of their emotion, and masterfully convey a moment of utmost sincerity, leaving an extremely powerful and poignant impact on the observers.

Boy Out The City has been co-created and directed by Nancy Sullivan, and the direction has been done so expertly. Sullivan has directed Bennett to make full use of the stage and ensures the constant focus of Bennet’s performance is maintaining contact with the audience. The piece is quite easygoing to begin with, however, Bennett's persona becomes more intense as it continues, as do their surroundings, as the depths of themselves are reached.

The production’s soundscape blends with the dialogue and creates an incredible tone throughout, with music or sound effects underscoring a vast amount of the performance. The sound design is by Max Pappenheim, enhancing the all-consuming, and, at times, haunting, nature of the sound, and creating variations in the volume to establish certain moods. The lighting design by Alex Lewer establishes a sense of the different settings (either in the present day of the piece or in Bennett’s reflections) very well and does so immediately, helping with the structure of the reflections. A follow-spot would help in moments for the audience to clearly see Bennett when they are moving into an area where the lighting enables them to be seen more.

Ruben Speed’s set design also creates a strong effect, consisting of an exposed frame, forming the house in the countryside, with additional features which add a minimal homely quality. This exposed framework in combination with the sparse homely features helps emphasise Bennett’s feelings of loneliness and despair in this unfamiliar setting. The colours of the costuming are striking against the colours of the set and the lighting.

Boy Out The City gives audiences a privilege to see Declan Bennett perform a piece so dear to them, in which there is a holistic delivery of a masterclass in reflectionary drama. The tour continues until 21st April 2024, visiting the Oxford Playhouse and the Lyric Theatre Belfast, two locations that also mean a lot to Bennett. You can buy tickets on their respective websites.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Ed Rees


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