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Review: Blue Boy at Northern Stage

MARGARET Wilkinson's bracing draught of 'office noir' invites us to share a social worker's dark night of the soul.

Jack Macmillan in the play Blue Boy
Jack Macmillan in the play Blue Boy

MARGARET Wilkinson's bracing draught of 'office noir' invites us to share a social worker's dark night of the soul.

Social workers are no doubt trained to deal with vulnerable and troubled people at a professional remove. Otherwise how could they be effective or stay sane?

But it’s easy to see how, late at night when you’re over-worked and stressed, the professional mask could slip and the cases recorded in the office files step out to haunt you in human form.

Is this is what is happening to Reagan, the manager of children’s homes, when, late at night as he’s trying to catch up on work with the aid of a bottle of the hard stuff, his pokey office is infiltrated by a young man with a backpack?

There are more questions than answers in this 75-minute drama focusing entirely on these two characters. But it’s an utterly absorbing piece of work.

Verity Quinn’s superb and unusual set, featuring cheap office furniture and paper clutter in a space so small and awkward it makes you squirm, is almost like a third character. Nothing good or useful, you sense, can happen here.

Alex Elliott is brilliant as Reagan, who reluctantly lets the boy – played by Jack McMillan with occasional remarks directly to the audience – stay in his office and then grows increasingly exasperated as he won’t shut up and go to sleep.

McMillan’s tousle-haired boy seems very nice at first, chatty and endearingly eager to please. But that eagerness becomes a little more forced, a little more aggressive as the play nears its dark climax.

I was gripped throughout a play which seemed to be saying some important things. For instance, the ease with which individuals – hard-pressed social workers and the people they are supposed to help – can get lost in a system which coldly has to count the cost of everything.

Perhaps my only minor criticism of the production, otherwise superbly acted and directed by Tess Denman-Cleaver, is that another couple of turns of the screw mightn’t have gone amiss.

There was a darkening of tone and a heightening sense of menace. It could have gone darker and higher without sinking into pure melodrama. That said, Blue Boy is effective and well worth seeing.

It is at Durham Town Hall today, Dolphin Centre, Darlington, on November 4 and the Customs House, South Shields, on November 5 and 6.

David Whetstone

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