Boy Out The City

Declan Bennett
Boy Out The City Ltd
Lyric Theatre, Belfast

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Declan Bennett in Boy Out The City Credit: Colin J Smith
Declan Bennett in Boy Out The City Credit: Colin J Smith
Declan Bennett in Boy Out The City Credit: Colin J Smith
Declan Bennett in Boy Out The City Credit: Colin J Smith
Poster image for Declan Bennett's Boy Out The City Credit: Boy Out The City Ltd.

First seen in 2021 and a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Declan Bennett’s Boy Out The City at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre is a painful, poignant, ultimately uplifting self-portrait of delayed affirmation.

A concentrated autobiography packed into 65 minutes, it charts Bennett’s life from a conflicted childhood in Coventry—1980s England was not the place to be gay and of Irish Catholic heritage—to (eventually) contented adulthood in rural Oxfordshire via a coming of age revelling in the seductive cosmopolitan thrills of New York and London.

It marks West End star performer Bennett’s promising debut as a writer, charting his search for selfhood and love with unflinching, often unflattering honesty. If his script has a tendency to trip over itself in its urgent rush to catch the truth of being—and struggling to be—gay in a society still stubbornly, unaccountably, laced by homophobia, his performance makes amends with its becoming ardour and vulnerability.

Newly ensconced in the love-nest of an Oxfordshire cottage with his fellow-actor boyfriend, the sudden departure of his beloved to America for a six-month filming schedule leaves the previously urbanite Bennett marooned and alone in an empty idyll. The advent of the COVID-19-induced lockdown only adds to his isolation, the ritual baking of banana bread for an elderly neighbour offering slight distraction.

It’s a perfect storm that threatens to wreck the relationship and Bennett’s own self of himself—“No dancing, no singing, no fun”, he ruefully reflects. But it also proves to be the making of him. What results is like eavesdropping on conflated sessions of primal scream therapy that trigger a dive into the past traumas of coming out and a cancer diagnosis at the age of 23 not least, and present punctured dreams.

Bennett’s experience is not unique. Boy Out The City shares some kinship with two previous one-person shows at the Lyric exploring similar territory: Paul McVeigh’s Big Man and Amanda Verlaque’s This Sh*t Happens All the Time, recently revived at the Grand Opera House.

Except here, playwright, character and actor are one and the same. It makes for heart-on-sleeve, soul-exposing stuff, abetted by the sketched but claustrophobic confinement of Reuben Speed’s set, adroit sound by Max Pappenheim and Alex Lewer’s evocative lighting.

Nancy Sullivan’s direction allows proceedings to flow with a too freewheeling energy that risks blunting Bennett’s writing and blurring his performance, the invitational, fourth wall-breaking ending falling awkwardly flat and in need of more articulate framing.

Offstage, a happy ending awaits Bennett and his newly betrothed, but the journey from there to here is an uncomfortable one that too many will identify with.

Boy Out The City will next be seen at Birmingham Rep from September 4-7, with more autumn dates to be announced soon.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn

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