Darkly detailed

17 April 2019

Alexander Cohen praises the talents of Yen

Matt Owen’s Yen is the theatrical equivalent of drinking five cups of extra strong coffee: jittery, intense and quite distressing.

Pound of Flesh theatre company have done a commendable job of bringing the story of Bobbie (Tom Kingman) and Hench (Oscar Sadler), two teenagers whose hobbies include watching porn, playing Call of Duty and fighting with each other to life. This production’s attention to detail is outstanding, with the creatively designed set perfectly complimenting some strong but sometimes over the top performances.

The relationship between the brothers is instantly convincing. Kingman and Sadler succeed in capturing the constant fluctuation between physical violence and brotherly affection as they circle an unmade bed and glowing television. The perfectly minimal set did well to create a sense of claustrophobia that complimented the disturbing themes of the play.

Both performances are highly nuanced and thought through: Sadler is animalistic as the authoritative Hench, he plods around the stage like a bulldog and snorts like a pig. This initially added depth to his character’s fractured psyche, but this characterisation soon becomes out of place and slightly bizarre, especially when interacting with love interest Jennifer (Olivia Holmes). Small details, such as a facial tick, felt like a substitute for nuanced characterisation and depth. A particularly questionable moment came when she described him as “gentle” despite his erratic physicality.

Kingman’s Bobbie is easily able to portray the inner mentality of someone, whose lack of a loving upbringing has led to a scarily disturbing individual, that becomes more and more depraved as the play progresses. Only someone with talent such as Kingman’s could portray someone who is so deranged yet so endearing. However, he suffers from a similar issue. Whilst the performance was teeming with adrenaline and vivacity, leaping through the air with excitement at the thought of seeing his emotionally manipulative mother, his intensity soon became grating. The lack of more relaxed sequences meant there was no juxtaposition between the moments that demanded heightened emotion, ultimately leading to poignant moments being lost among the furore. This tension was also not helped by the lack of an interval. In theory, it makes sense given the tight emotional arcs each character undergoes, but in reality, the lack of a break in a two hour performance was demanding given the energetic performances. The audience literally and metaphorically did not have a chance to breath.

Eliza Beresford must be mentioned for her beautifully subtle performance as the boys’ selfish and sometimes nasty mother Maggie. She clearly understood her character’s intentions and desires, hinting at a character whose story is worth a play of its own. This made her performance one of the standouts.

Perhaps the best directorial decision was to use a projector to mark the passage of time between scenes. Seeing the set suddenly flow with colour was a perfect way to mark scene changes feeling natural and creative; the use of images relating to and further suggesting the boys’ viewing material again did well to fortify the twisted world in which they live.

Yen is not an easy play to digest nor to produce, but Matt Owen and his team have created a darkly detailed story that is worth seeing for the powerful narrative and talented cast and crew. However it’s overreliance on high energy becomes a noticeable weakness that unfortunately takes away from an otherwise powerful production.

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Photo credit: Beatrice Debney