Reviewed by Charlotte Fleming
Half Moon presents a Papertale production in association with Apples and Snakes (South East)
Playing at Half Moon Theatre until 24th March
For ages 8-12
You don’t need to know about Hilary Swank or The Cure to know what it is that Boys Don’t do. The title completes itself in our heads, against our will, so that before we’ve even taken our seats we are demonstrating how ingrained some social expectations can be. Sadly, this may be the first and last time that the Spoken Word play by Papertale theatre company, in association with Apples and Snakes, lets us think for ourselves.
There’s so much to say about gender stereotyping, about gender roles and gender identity. Everywhere we turn there is more information and more evidence showing us that lazy thinking around gender roles is not only unsustainable, but dangerous. Organisations like CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) and the Movember campaign to ‘stop men dying too young’, work together to highlight the specific dangers that exist for young men who hide or suppress their emotions in order to maintain a Victorian idea of ‘masculinity’. As well as the far-reaching implications of relating emotions to a particularly feminine form of weakness, there is also the more immediate and acute reality that boys who are encouraged to suppress their emotions are more likely to suffer from mental health problems and, indeed, suffer in silence.
As such, I was not just hoping for but expecting an exploration of these malevolent social pressures uniquely experienced by boys and young men. And, I thought, if they find a way to reference the interaction between this issue and the way women and girls are dismissed as ‘too’ emotional, then all the better. I’m sorry to say that in nearly every respect I was disappointed. In a particularly literal interpretation of the title, three stories were told, each by a different spoken word artist, and each focussed on shedding tears.
It should be said that I really enjoy Spoken Word. But what works well in a small space, a mic and a cabaret seating plan, doesn’t necessarily resonate in an auditorium. No matter how small the stage might be, there are opportunities to be had in a theatrical space to make something visually and emotionally engaging, even with a limited set. Unfortunately, what could have been understated was just underwhelming, and this left the actors sadly under-supported when their comfort zone was clearly elsewhere. Such a situation relies on the words to have power enough to draw the audience in, whatever their age. Again, sadly, Boys Don’t didn’t. Clumsy rhyming (‘Told he would shatter if his tears pitter patter’), forced imagery (‘Refreshing as a lolly made of frozen tears’) and clichés (‘Eyes dry as a bone’) made it difficult to penetrate the emotion of each piece, while the stories they told were themselves on the edge of trite.
The first boy is peer-pressured into punching someone, the second is told to ‘write until you cry’ because he has been acting violently. Both present violence as the only counterpoint to crying, and both represent the mother as the only facilitator to expressing their emotions. The third story is about a boy who is bullied, and contains a number of references to the other children who are grouped by gender: the ‘girls are snickering/boys are braying’ and the protagonist must run ‘away from the girls’. There is no representation of sensitive peers who might also be feeling the way the boy feels. Instead, children who cry are shown to be outsiders, or different. It feels like the storytellers are underestimating their audience, or else pitching to a higher age group than they ought. You cannot challenge stereotypes by stereotyping and my impression from the Q&A after the performance was that the 10 year olds in the audience understood this better than the performers.
There’s nothing really wrong or bad about this production, it’s tolerable. But in a way that is enough of a sin: with a conversation that is so important to get started with young people (male and female!), to make such a lame attempt at beginning, to fall so obviously into lazy thinking and stereotypes so that even as a grown woman in the audience, I felt embarrassed for the boys who were being talked down to, and affronted for the girls who were being entirely left out of the conversation, is not okay. Gender stereotypes hurt everybody, and the idea that emotions are a sign of weakness is negative for all genders. If you’re going to do this stuff, don’t do it just because feminism and male mental health is trending – do it properly, do it right. Listen hard to the people you are about to talk to, or you will waste a perfect, and all-too-often fleeting, opportunity to engage thoughtful young people in a way that could change their lives and ours for the better and for good.
Charlotte Fleming is a blogger, proofreader and editor, and Managing Director of I Read Your Writing. Charlotte is cisgender female and writes from her experience as such, but would welcome comments from anyone else who have seen the show. Follow Charlotte at @ReadYourWriting