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New Boy

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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William Sutcliffe’s 1996 novel was first adapted for the stage by director Russell Labey in 2000, so it’s been knocking around for some time. But you can’t fault the notion that it might make a suitable vehicle for Nicholas Hoult, who plays Tony in E4’s teen drama Skins on television.

Whereas Tony, as Hoult tells What's on Stage magazine this month, was manipulative and knew how to deal with other people, Mark in New Boy is insecure inside his own skin, obsessed with his burgeoning sexuality but unclear how to express it and gawkily ill at ease in social situations.

Hoult conveys all this very well in a play that still seems contrived and over-schematic. And there’s a rather unpleasant explicit edge to it, too, which is different from saying it’s brave or outspoken. We first see Mark giving a classroom talk (why?) on the female genitalia, a speech that is couched in terms of revulsion rather than delight.

This smuttiness runs through the play, leaving an unpleasant taste, even though Mark’s crush on his new sixth form friend Barry (the excellent Gregg Lowe) is fairly well expressed, or at least implied, by his outburst that everyone wants to have sex with him (Barry) – not least the French mistress, Mrs Mumford.

The latter is played delightfully by Mel Giedroyc, treating the audience packed together in the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios first as snotty school kids and then as confidential voyeurs in her sexual adventure. Mrs Mumford is fired and Barry expelled and the pay stutteringly resolves itself as Barry pairs off with Mark’s brother, Dan (Phil Matthews), and Mark is taken in hand, so to speak, by Barry’s sister Louise (Ciara Janson).

What kind of a boy is Mark? The book, I’m told, is based on Sutcliffe’s own personal experience at Haberdashers’ Aske’s, and Mark tells us that his parents, whom we never see, are easy-going on matters of sex and drugs. Barry’s equally invisible mother features in a sexual fantasy; the play can be seen as bridging that comedy gap between private thought and public action on the biology front.

But while Hoult is sweet and charming in his lanky, lumbering way, it’s hard to get any real idea of how good he might be as a stage actor when the dramatic stakes are a bit higher.

- Michael Coveney


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