Nancy Heath reviews Boy with Beer at the King’s Head Theatre, and talks to Chin Nyenwe about his role of Karl.
In a cosy pub in Islington off Upper Street, there’s a door to the King’s Head Theatre. Inside, the space was set up almost in the round, with the audience leaning into the action. The scene: the flat of Karl, a 27-year-old photograph and aspiring poet, who moved to London from Ghana 9 years ago. The story is his relationship with Donovan, a younger Afro-Caribbean man who meets him in a frenzied start, a muddled middle, and a heart-warming ending. The time: 1991.
The play is 80 minutes straight through and manages to create and maintain an intensity for every second of it. There’s a realism, and a touching relatability to even the most mundane of scenes in Boy with Beer’s portrayal of the awkward reality of the start of a relationship – the half-remembered face from the night before; the inconsequential small talk; the disappointing first attempt at sex.
Paul Boakye’s play was first performed nearly 25 years ago back in 1992. At the time it was deemed “taboo breaking” and was applauded by audiences who were hesitant about the subject matter of such a realistic play about love between a gay black man and a bisexual black man.
The King’s Head Theatre’s performance of Boakye’s play – the first performance of it since it’s 1992 opening – is sensitive and impactful. Under the direction of Harry Mackrill, Chin Nyenwe (Karl) and Enyi Okoronkwo (Donovan) allow audiences to watch a relationship that is intimate but hesitant, and fierce but tender, be tried and tested in a way that never feels voyeuristic despite the intimacy of the space.
I was fortunate to be able to speak to Chin Nyenwe straight after the performance to discuss the play, and the power and intentions behind it.
“A friend of Harry’s found it through the black play archive, and Harry latched onto it” Chin said, describing how director Harry Mackrill was drawn in by the play’s ideas and brought the play out of its modern obscurity.
“The playwright, Paul, if the play wasn’t so “controversial” at the time, he would’ve gone on to be a household name. Because the writing is so detailed and nuanced—and smart. But now we have much more progressive thinking audiences, this play should be excepted.”
Boy with Beer’s script, that Chin described as “witty and explosive”, is a concise masterpiece. Boakye’s elegantly colloquial script, and the tight control of this production, created a performance the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while on the London stage.
Considering this, I asked how Chin thought the play might be differently perceived by audiences today. He spoke of how he drew from his own experiences of growing up in the 90s to gain insight into the context of the play then, and now.
“Growing up in the mid-90s, the stigma attached to homosexuality – progress was being made but there weren’t as many progressive thinkers around in London at the time. I think that today it would be a lot more acceptable – because there’s been a lot of strives to make it acceptable in England. If this play came out now it would have almost been a celebration. [Although] it would still be controversial now to some people…”
And surely that’s why we need more theatre like this. The world is changing and the London theatre scene is changing with it.
Considering the small cast and crew of this production, Chin complimented them as “The most ego-less crew of people I have worked with in a long time – the collaborative nature of it was amazing. Harry as a director just allows you to think for yourself, but is always adding some genius of his own that makes you go – fuck why didn’t I think of that?”
Chin commented how on something this play made him realise: “I would never want to work with a director who doesn’t know more about my character than me”, and showered out equal praise for his co-actor Enyi Okoronkwo – “he’s hilarious – and in nature he’s nothing like Donovan”.
Both Donovan and Karl are thrillingly multi-faceted characters, leaving you still discovering things about them in the play’s last seconds. Chin laughed when I asked how he found playing Karl: “Challenging – I wouldn’t say I always enjoyed it, but I definitely didn’t hate it. At first I thought I was close to Karl in nature but I came to realise I’m not as close in nature as I thought. It’s a tough script to get right – do you enjoy what sometimes felt a bit laborious because it’s an emotional stretch? But it’s definitely not a role I hated because I knew if I got it right this is a role that could be really good for the audience.”
And this reviewer definitely thinks he got it right.
Chin described how the role needed a lot of research to understand homosexuality in that period, and the socio-economic-political issues that a gay, Ghanaian man might face in 1991 London. Karl is a huge and intriguing character both for the audience and the actor who plays him – Karl delivers spontaneous monologues, almost soliloquies throughout the script, often in the form of his poetry. Chin smiled as he told me he needed to do more of this kind of role “or I’ll fall out of love with this job by the time I’m thirty. [This role] hands down stretched me the most artistically.”
Boy with Beer is a breath of fresh air for representation in theatre, and despite being such an individual story, offers a great universality. Chin concluded that “the universality to it is definitely there because it speaks to heterosexuals, it speaks to homosexuals, it speaks to black people, and to white people – it speaks to everyone because Paul’s writing is multidimensional and the characters are multidimensional.”
When I asked how I should try and pitch the show to UCL students, Chin found it simple: “students should definitely come and see it. The world [students] are trying to understand, a lot of it is explained in a lot of the good theatre you can see today – particularly in London”.
Boy with Beer is running at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington until 26th November. Do yourself a favour and go and watch it – it’s eighty minutes you won’t regret.
Featured Image: Kate Morley PR