The Ash Boy @ Theatre 503, London

cast list
Philip Brodie
Gabrielle Hamilton
Stuart Muirs

directed by
Gene David Kirk
Jack is worried. He’s worried about his mother, who hardly ever eats. And he’s worried about the corrupting power of radio waves, about the possibility of pornography infiltrating his brain. But he’s not worried about his new friend Benny, at least not at first…

The Ash Boy, a new play by London-based Irish playwright Chris Lee, has already sold out a brief run at Battersea’s intimate Theatre 503 and on the back of that it’s returned for a second, longer, stint. A piece that ran about the play on the BBC conjured up slightly off-putting images of worthy ‘issue’ theatre; of characters dealing with mental health problems in an uncaring society – and the set, a grotty, bare bedsit (designed by Alice Walking) did little to dispel these. However my fears were unfounded, as Lee’s play turned out to be an intense and thought-provoking, but also frequently amusing, drama.

Jack undoubtedly has mental health issues, but he’s hanging on, managing to get by, with his mum and his PlayStation for company. His mum doesn’t do much talking and it’s a struggle to get her to eat, she’s fading away; as for his abusive Irish father – well, the man’s ashes reside on a cupboard on the wall. It’s not much of a family but it works for Jack.

Into this narrow world of theirs comes Benny, a gently charismatic middle-aged Glaswegian who Jack meets on a park bench. Benny is down on his luck and looking for a place to stay; he assesses their situation pretty quickly, sees an opportunity. Played with real charm and presence by Stuart Muirs, Benny seems initially benign, a bit of a chancer maybe, but nothing more. As events unfold however it becomes clear there is something more sinister about him.

Lee is a mental health professional, as well as a playwright, so his writing carries an added measure of authenticity. He’s also adept at voices; there’s real music in the banter that passes between these three characters, even if they’re only playing a game of Scrabble. Director Gene David Kirk effectively builds up the tension while not neglecting his material’s considerable capacity for the darkly humorous.

As Jack, Philip Brodie, gives an intense and believable portrayal of a man overwhelmed. And Gabrielle Hamilton, as his mother Eve, is also incredibly watchable as a woman tired of fighting with life, but with a trace of spark still left in her.

The play’s shorter second half is considerably bleaker than what went before, building to a shocking, if inevitable, conclusion. There’s an occasional sense of over-familiarity to this portrait of people on the edges of society and Lee sometimes relies on easy gimmicks – old ladies swearing are always good for a laugh – but for the most part The Ash Boy steers well clear of clich to deliver a fresh and original take on a difficult subject. An impression enhanced by the excellent performances of all three actors.

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