Unflinching boys' tale is practically perfect

Review by Paul Nelson

JUST about the best play I have seen this year is Big Boys, currently on view at the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon. Certainly it is spellbinding in its telling.

It is not an easy ride, there are scenes that I found extremely disturbing, but by gritting the teeth and wallowing in some magnificent performances, the evening is truly memorable.

Two boys find themselves sharing the same prison cell. It is South Africa in 1986, a year in which a state of emergency was declared under the rule of PW Botha giving virtually unlimited power to the security forces. There is fear almost everywhere, you can feel it in this play, and it is breeding despair and violence.

One of the two boys is Solomon, a black lad of fifteen years who has been imprisoned on the charge of murdering his mother. He is a member of a youthful gang of protesters, very prevalent at the time.

His brother has been 'taken away' and their mother is suspected by the band of youth of informing on him. Informers, known as the impimpi, are executed by the method known as 'necklacing', a tyre is placed around them, filled with petrol and fired which the boy witnessed. Now Solomon is in gaol refusing to inform on his friends, tormented by the memory of his mother's death, and because of his refusal to inform is being tortured on an almost daily basis. These are the harrowing scenes.

By contrast the other boy, Daniel, is white and well off. He has stolen his mother's Porsche, been out drinking, and has broken speed limits and been arrested. He is unceremoniously thrown in with Solomon.

The other characters are Tokkie, a prison warder of mixed blood, therefore 'coloured' and Sant, his white superior. Tokkie is distinctly nervous, and determined to get a list of names out of Solomon, is brutal. Sant, showing smarmy charms, is equally brutal.

Sant has sexual hang ups which are really eating at his innermost self. Tokkie, while subserviently knowing his place, worries for his job, his family and his future. Both men have an interest and play in South Africa's national game, rugby.

When Tokkie is repeatedly called a Hotnot (a derogatory term used by whites toward coloureds) he loses his temper and slugs Daniel. This serves to increase his fear that if the boy informs on him he will lose his job. Informing and informers are the mainsprings that wind up this play, its characters, and the audience.

Meanwhile the two boys form a friendship based originally on a truce between them.

It would be unfair to divulge any more of this absorbing plot. Let me say that it consistently holds the attention and gives excellent opportunities to its cast. The play is fascinating in that although it portrays the hideous side of racism and Apartheid in particular, it is really about the fear and insecurity, which ironically is brought about by its suppression.

The author, Charles J Fourie, a South African, has written over thirty plays yet, almost unbelievably, this excellent piece is the first of his works to be produced in this country. I fervently hope it will not be the last. Unlike his compatriot, Athol Fugard, he has the knack of simplification, a major talent in this country these days. In fact, just a little less use of Afrikaans, or whatever language Tokkie and Solomon used, would have made the evening perfect. However, it is fair to remark that the menace is implicit, even though the language is unfamiliar.

The performances, in particular those of Sibusiso Mamba as Solomon and Ian Harry as Tokkie, are shining jewels in a glittering evening of talent.

The play is lit with care and feeling for the subject and the direction is faultless. Overall, this is worth a vast detour if it should be necessary. The evening is practically perfect.

Big Boys by Charles J Fourie, Directed by Jeremy Bond, Design by Derick de Bruyn, Lighting by Paul Bryan WITH Ian Harry (Tokkie), Sibusiso Mamba (Solomon), Philip Rham (Sant), Adrian Hughes (Daniel). Presented by Stages International Theatre Company in association with Warehouse Theatre Company at the Warehouse Theatre, Dingwall Road, Croydon. 020 8680 4060.

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, website...