'Yen' review or 'Bruntwood, brothers, bruises and banter.'

‘Yen’, Anna Jordan
Royal Court Theatre, 4th February 2016

Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood-winning play takes place in a space that will feel familiar to anyone who watches a lot a new writing: an airless grotty living room; a tomb of squalor and neglect. Inside this room live brothers Hench and Bobbie, who spend most of their time playing computer games and watching porn. We’re in Feltham but the location doesn’t matter hugely; this play takes place in a dirty vacuum. Anna Jordan is a talented writer with heaps of dramatic instinct and compassion but ‘Yen’ is a grating and frustrating play. At its best, it feels like a romantic but clunky portrayal of love and sunlight glinting amongst the squalor. At its worst, it feels like an indulgent and iterative study of poverty and ignorance.

I have no doubt that Jordan is capable of writing deeply felt and smartly constructed theatre – but there’s something about ‘Yen’ that feels cloyingly insincere. It a bit like a tour guide through a country that Jordan doesn’t truly understand. I strongly believe there are domains that Jordan could explore with much more authority, authenticity and freedom.

The openings scenes are like a particularly grotty episode of Eastenders – only with a rather arty framework imposed around the edges (Georgia Lowe’s set is made up of two metal frameworks, which trap the boys within a strangely cavernous prison of their own making). Half-dressed, scratching and wanking on repeat, the two brothers watch porn, play computer games and wind each other up. It’s the brotherly banter that Jordan really nails here. Young Bobbie (Jake Davies) barely goes a second without calling his brother Hench (Alex Austin) a penis or a big gay man. Their constant bickering and deeply buried – but palpable affection – for each other is one of the few elements in this play that doesn't feel ‘borrowed’; it’s detailed, honest and utterly convincing.  

The scenes between the boys and their absentee mother Maggie (Sian Breckin) are particularly awkward. Every sad encounter or harsh instance of neglect – such as when Maggie steals from her sons or Bobbie spoons his mother in bed - feels like it has been designed to bruise or shock. Despite a fine performance from Davies as the burstingly vulnerable Bobbie, and a particularly strong turn from Austin as the flinty-soft Hench, it’s impossible to shake off a feeling of falsity. Director Ned Bennet is normally so good at creating an eerie off-beat feel to his productions but there are too many self-conscious notes in this strained production. 

Other than the central bond between the two brothers, the relationships feel brittle. Mum Maggie is far too removed – too exotic in her cruelty and depravity – to make a meaningful impact. And when young Jenny (Annes Elwy) appears on the scene, it’s very hard to believe that this sensitive young girl would stick around in a flat that stinks of semen, sweat and dog-shit. Despite these doubts, there are some gorgeous moments that flare up in response to Jenny’s presence. The play becomes cleaner and kinder and begins to feel a little more honest. There is one particularly beautiful scene when Jenny hugs Hench, who begins to cry. That tiny moment says all we need to know about the neglect and yearning that burns in these two brothers’ hearts.