Review: Domestic Violence in the Chatroom – I Love You Bro’ at La Boite Theatre

I’ve often found myself using the caveat about something outrageous from real life … mostly behaviour … you know how it goes, ‘If they put that on stage, no one would believe it!’ Well, someone did. Adam J Cass, in fact. The writer of I Love You Bro‘ La Boite’s latest, directed by David Berthold takes the real-life extraordinary circumstances of a 14 year old from Manchester in the UK who conspired to kill himself.  He and his dupe, an online chat friend ‘MarkyMark’ were eventually arrested and charged with attempted murder and incitement to murder. Yes indeed, an unbelievable (almost) real story and another in the ‘troubled teen’ genre, one that’s absurd, tragic and hints at that bogeyman of the ‘dangerous web.’ I thought in passing as I left the building after the performance that La Boite could quite easily have sub-titled their 2010 season as ‘People behaving crazily at full stretch.’ It’s been one of those years at the Roundhouse so far.

I Love You Bro‘ is also one of the saddest plays I’ve seen in a long time.  The boy is a victim of domestic violence and he retreats upstairs to his room away from the horrors of his mother’s abusive relationship with his step-father. Loveless and powerless in the real world, he finds escape, solace and strength in the anonymity of a web chat-room.  The virtual guise of ‘Johnny-Boy’ is also a mask to hide behind and protect himself from the real world downstairs. You’ve probably heard of the way domestic violence can breed itself and replicate in children damaged this way? Johnny’s new powerful virtual self recreates a world of violence in an online chatroom, creating personas and a plot-line that abuses trust and relationships, kills off characters with abandon, and finally sets his own head and life spinning out of control.

The tangled webs of the play are beautifully drawn and directed by Berthold and his team of design creatives (Renée Mulder, Carolyn Emerson, Guy Webster and Jaxzyn). They provide an open platform (which is not without its acoustic challenges for an actor) and create a world of light and sound that cleverly punctuates and paces narrative and action. The night probably belongs to Leon Cain as ‘Johnny-Boy’ who never flags during the 75 minutes he holds the stage alone. A measure, I think, of a good performance is when an actor takes you by surprise, wrong-foots your expectations and delights you with the unexpected.

Cain’s usual onstage persona – an easy boyish charm – gets a makeover in what is a break-through role for him. He plays a kid, but this is a grown-up actor at work.

The role offers the actor a chance to show his acting stamina, his stagecraft and mastery over a complex and and nicely poetic text; the results in Leon Cain’s interpretation are accomplished. Along the way he transcends the character’s geeky goofiness and segues effortlessly into a frightened and vulnerable kid, one who is also terrifyingly dangerous.

And a measure of a good playtext in production? Leaving aside production values for a minute, it’s one that takes you by surprise and delight, mixes up your thinking, leaves you pondering. My allegiances swung wildly during the course of the play – by turns I wanted to slap Johnny-Boy, cheer him on (something about geeks vs sports-jocks – you’ll know what I mean if you see the play) and just hug him.  I really liked the feel and especially the sound of Cass’ text in performance; it exploits its own theatricality without ever losing the audience’s engagement in the reality of its central character. The real-life Johnny-Boy failed to get himself killed all those years ago and lives now, perhaps with regret, but certainly in Cass’ take on what was headline stuff at the time, a certain swaggering infamy to tell the tale. ‘I’m something now,’ he tells us as the lights fade.

On opening night La Boite asked audience members to tweet their reviews of what they’d just seen. These were immediately projected on to the large screen in the Parade Ground Yard for the after-show reception. Within minutes the screen lit up with complimentary 140 character comments. If you’d like to see what was said, you can do so by searching on Twitter using the hashtag for the event:  #laboite

This is what Greenroom had to say:

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