In the groundbreaking play “Boy”, written by Leo Butler and recently performed at the Almeida Theatre, a poor, white working class teenager wanders the streets of London. He experiences the City in all its chaos and complexity, in all its spaces and places. Via some outstanding theatrical production techniques, superb acting and script, we share the experience. Though very familiar scenes, to a resident at least, London becomes an absurd, frightening, and distant world of confused sounds, languages, accents and cultures. To a large extent the play is about a white English boy deeply distanced from the contemporary diversity of London. Yet this is not a play that plays to the gallery looking for a narrative of a country lost to multiculturalism where whites have become second class citizens. Admirably, it manages to address the specific issues facing the white poor without placing blame or identifying causes in the predictable places. In its complexity and observation, it makes a vital contribution to one of a number of conversations that can feel near impossible to hold.
The play achieves this by showing us the vast variety of things that the boy in question is alienated from. While it suggests that being of diaspora can to some degree provide the possibility for a sense of identity not available to young poor whites in these contexts, it does so only to illustrate the wider detachment of society that is the root of alienation. Where others are in some way equipped to negotiate today’s complex world, the disaffected white boy is here perhaps the least adaptable. This means a desire to access those cultures of which he can never truly belong. Even if he speaks the new “native” multicultural English tongue, it’s not entirely his language, and doesn’t hold the same meaning. “I’m not your fam” replies a young black girl to his use of the term during one moment of dialogue in the incredibly authentic script.
Diversity exists as a celebratory backdrop only if you have your own stage on which to stand. When people celebrate London’s diversity, it is because they have their own cultural space to return to and their own accessible spaces to utilise. The literal stage of “Boy” is a travellator with no scenery other than that which passes along it, he has no stable ground or setting to be framed in. The multi-culture is only partly about minorities and people with different colour skin, it’s also about different languages, about different levels of class and privilege. In fact, the white middle class are arguably the most distant and alien of all his interactions – but all magnified by the central urban landscapes, culturally obscure and corporate.
When we talk about British identity and the changing face of Britain, we rarely talk about the things that may really alienate and detract from genuine sources of culture and meaning – poverty, inequality, consumerism and globalisation. I recently heard the new Mayor of Bristol and first ever black mayor in Europe, Marvin Rees, being quizzed by Jeremy Vine on his view on threats to British identity. He sited such companies as Pizza Hut and McDonalds as examples of where localised white British culture was threatened by big, global and ubiquitous spaces – the ‘standardisation of world demand and brands’, as opposed to the go to scapegoat of immigration and multiculturalism. As a man of mixed heritage growing up across both white and ethnically diverse communities he is ideally placed to impart this vital but rare perspective. One that knows deep changes have occurred within all communities regardless of others.
And this ‘standardisation of world demand’ brings me to Sports Direct. The pilgrimage the boy in “Boy” makes is to meet a friend at the said high street store on Oxford Street. Even more than the automatic checkout desks of Sainsburies, also brilliantly staged, at the crux of the play Sports Direct is the space most frighteningly obscure and rejecting – literally so as he finds himself physically ejected for entering after closing time. Huge letters spelling out the companies name circle us on the travellator as menacing giant figures, giving us the sense that we are both in the store and in its soul. Such big chains are a huge part of modern life, they are part of our culture and our aspirations, but they provide little in the way of community and meaningful connections where people lack alternative cultural access points.
In the light of the company’s recent exposition of paying employees (of all backgrounds) less than the minimum wage, it seems they play a conscious role as well as having a pernicious effect, exploiting the lowest paid and further wedging society apart.
When we talk about what’s missing in society, and when we need to talk about the specific cultural and economic alienation and disadvantage facing the white working class poor, it would serve the conversation well to listen to people like Marvin Rees and Leo Butler and not reject the conversation outright. Through plays like “Boy” maybe we can approach the subject in a way that doesn’t funnel us down the usual discursive dead ends and instead leads to constructive ideas about the kind of diverse but also nurturing, inclusive and organic urban spaces we want to live in. All of us.
Boy ran at the Almeida theatre until the end of last month (and will hopefully get an extension!). Details here: http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/boy/5-apr-2016-28-may-2016
Jeremy Vine interview with my fellow Bristolian, Marvin Rees here (from 1.29.30): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07bkc3y