Catapulting us back to a time in Norfolk when boys roamed the fields and fought rival gangs during the time of WW2, The Custard Boys still touches a nerve with its story of young male love, bullying, loyalty and cowardice.
Like a darker, more grown up version of Just William, adapter/director Glenn Chandler does full justice to the resurrection of this play with its cast of seven young men. It provides a poignant look into an era long gone while maintaining the same topics relevant to young people now: boys who want to prove themselves, desperate to have a function, playing war games to feel strong. The gang is all they have.
When an Austrian Jew enters the scene and one of the boys gets assigned to take care of him, the hierarchy of the group gets shaken. As new feelings start to emerge between the two of them, war games and gang fights are not the only dangers they face. “The weak need the strong”, but the question arises - who is weak and who is strong?
Chandler has chosen an excellent cast. The main characters Mark Stein (Andrew St Pierre) and Charlie Cussons (John Curlew) give a very sensitive portrayal of two young men growing closer, having to face the same difficulties as they would today. The scene which leads to a first kiss, delicately constructed, switches between uncomfortable closeness and excellent comic timing to move the audience with every breath. Although Stein’s German accent takes on a slightly French quality, he is an excellent choice for the Austrian refugee.
Chandler’s brilliant observation of boys’ behaviour shows itself in each of the cast members. They act far beyond the realms of the stage, making the space appear to be much bigger than it really is. Each character is finely developed and likeable even when his actions show otherwise, proving a well-written script.
Although the ending is foreseeable and there is a slight anticlimax as the play draws to a close, the after effect seems casual and doesn’t affect the boys as much as it should.
The stage design by Cecilia Carey depicts an imaginary playground for set and costume changes and acts as an element of the games played by the boys.
This production could easily work on a much bigger stage in the West End. Its topic is as fresh as ever and relates perfectly to the current topic of gay exclusion and mobbing. It could be compared to The History Boys without grown-ups, who never seem real when talked about in the play or caricatured, as the only reality the boys have are their current wars against themselves and others.
- Fleur Poad