York's Belt Up Theatre have once again taken over a set of rooms in a C building and created their own little world out of it. The House Above is a shaky old thing, but serves as a playground for Belt Up to practice their brand of immersive theatre. In this (one of their eight shows this year), Belt Up take their audience into the study of J. M. Barrie to witness the gradual maturing of the creator of 'Peter Pan' as he leaves his childish imagination behind.
The eponymous boy James appears to truely be the boy who would never grow up. He exists in the imagination (or he actually is the imagination) of the older James (Barrie). Imagination is a very evident force in this piece, as young James (Jethro Compton) takes his audience on flight after flight of fancy (such as the time when he and James' running feet created extra rings around Saturn).
Belt Up's audience are packed into a stuffy study - an enchanted castle to the Boy James - which smacks of late Victorian semi-respectability. It's typical of Belt Up to actively involve their audience - as in the game of tig to get us into the interactive mood early on. But they tend to get lost in their world once James Snr (James Wilkes) arrives, and the audience becomes merely a periphery group again.
It's easy to be very close to the dark heart of this play. The space is so small that the frenzied attacks attacks and gently intimate exchanges have to happen barely two feet from your face. Not unlike Barrie's work, this play wears a light face with its impish child James, but has a dark heart in the pain of separation and loss so incomprehensible to a child. When Veronica Hare's anonymous girl explodes in a sexual frenzy, ripping open the closeted, innocent world of The Boy James it's a harsh reminder of both the dark currents of children's literature and the inevitability of growing up. As James Snr leaves this tiny Eden, carrying the burden of adulthood, so the audience leaves knowing that the Boy James must stay in his enchanted castle and never grow up.
Compton iswide-eyed and endearing, Wilkes' still, calm voice is perfectly suited to this small space where projection is not necessary - the most projecting is done by Compton on behalf of the audience's imaginations.
While children's books often have darker sides, it's hard to see where the sexual excess (let's face it, she tries to rape him) of The Boy James comes from. Maybe the boy does need to be helped into the adult world (kicking and screaming, though?) - but probably not through a clandestine, forceful sexual encounter with a violent and precocious young girl. Or young woman...just how old are these two supposed to be?
If they tighten up their plotting and stick to their guns on involving their audience, then Belt Up have a wonderfully intimate complement to their more flamboyant spectacles
Reviewed by Richard T. Watson 11th August 2010
Belt Up's 'The Boy James' runs in C Soco's Studio 1a (The House Above), at 1pm for 55 minutes, until the 29th of August. It carries a 12+ age recommendation.