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Two Boys

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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English National Opera’s marketing machine has gone into overdrive for the world premiere of Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’s opera Two Boys and taken every opportunity to exploit new technology in getting the word out.

There’s been a blog, a video-streamed debate and a promotional video that has gone viral, garnering nearly a million hits on Youtube.  Will Self has provoked a lively discussion on the impact the internet now has on our lives and it was looking as though all this everyday drama and debate was going to be taken into the opera house to create something vital and thought-enhancing.

Unfortunately, what Muhly and Lucas give us is an old-fashioned, poorly-crafted piece of work that is as dramatically inert as anything you’re ever likely to see.  All the intellectual enquiry and argument that makes the Will Self discussion so interesting and relevant to our lives is missing in the actual show.

The starting point is a reworking of a 40-year old play, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, with a police mystery tacked on and a storyline less compelling than an average episode of The Bill.  Shaffer’s dramatis personae remains intact – investigating authority figure, troubled teenager, sexually-provocative girlfriend and confused, churchgoing parents - and to bring this creaky old psychological thriller up-to-date, the dysfunctional youth spends too much time on his laptop.

Muhly’s music is easy on the ear and has outbursts of energy, with a pleasing quintet to end Act 1, but it’s too much like an Adams, Glass or Andriessen score with most of the excitement expunged.   

It’s easily the strongest element of the evening though.  Dramatically, Two Boys is every TV police drama rolled into one.  Susan Bickley has proved herself again and again in much more complex and demanding material than this but, as the detective investigating the mystery, she has little of interest to do. 

She’s given the usual backstory of life/work crises (an ailing mum at home, too much time in the office, bottle in the desk) and must be the thickest plod there’s ever been.  I don’t need to add a spoiler; you’ll work out the mystery fairly early on and certainly get it long before her uncomprehending analogue brain does.

Proving again that he’s a real star in the making, Nicky Spence gives the standout performance, as the 16 year old who has apparently stabbed not a stableful of horses but a much younger boy in an alleyway.

Bartlett Sher’s production reflects the material and limps unimaginatively, the whole machinery moving with the speed of early 90s dial-up rather than the super-swift broadband of today.  Even the inevitable projections by 59 Productions fail to inject much excitement.

Two decades on from the internet exploding into our lives, it’s time to pause and take stock of how we live in the digital age.  The opera house is as good a place as any to do that but Two Boys, which was a great opportunity to be cutting edge, innovative and inquiring, misses the mark by a mile. 

On cam masturbation may seem daring to some but it just isn’t enough to cut the gravee.

- Simon Thomas


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