12-year-old Sonny (Raphel Famotibe) has learned a creative coping mechanism for his stammer: he makes comic books about Captain Chatter, a superhero he invented to help him survive social situations, including the trials of secondary school. He’s also struggling with the loss of his mum, unable to articulate his emotions on top of everyday speech. And when he’s forced to join a lunchtime drama club for its production of Hamlet, as well as one-to-ones with the deputy headteacher, he finds himself pushed to the limit.
Stammering has sometimes been addressed in the media, notably through schoolboy Musharaf in the 2013 Channel 4 documentary Educating Yorkshire (Musharaf has since gone on to be a motivational speaker), and former MP Ed Balls, whose stammer wasn’t diagnosed until he was 41. However, in an age of instant communication and the likes of TikTok, Zoom calls, voice notes and podcasts, it feels timely to raise the issue again, and playwright Ross Willis is more than capable of commanding our attention.
The play also explores the mental health aspects of Sonny’s stammer; Famotibe brilliantly conveys the emotional toll here, from physical outbursts to complete introversion. He is aided by a mesmerising Ramesh Meyyappan as the silent but hyper-expressive Captain Chatter. Meyyappan mixes British Sign Language, dramatic movement and mime to great effect. Wonder Boy also contrasts the realism of the deputy headteacher, Wainwright, talking to the kids on their level and unafraid to swear, with the ‘Behaviour Development Scheme’ bureaucracy of the headteacher, Fish; anyone who’s worked in schools will recognise this clash straight away.
Accessibility and inclusivity have been considered throughout. An integrated screen, merged into the sparse set design, captions every line from our actors, including the BSL of Captain Chatter, and adds in the familiar Pop Art dots of Roy Lichtenstein, who translated comic book art to the fine art world. Each character has cleverly been assigned a different font for their lines; for example, Sonny has a narrow handwriting-style typeface. These fonts can even be colour-matched to costumes. Further typographic expression comes from giant 3D letters carried by the cast at key points to spell out words or attack Sonny.
Juliet Agnes, as fellow pupil Roshi, is great fun to watch; for every sentence Sonny fights to complete, Roshi has ten, whether she’s describing the plot of Hamlet (‘A shit version of The Lion King’; ‘The original fuckboy’) or critiquing a lost dog poster. Her lines, shown in bold comic book-style caps, are packed with sarcasm and wit, but we come to learn she is much more than just comic relief.
As the action moves towards the all-important Hamlet performance, where Sonny must play a guard in the opening scene, his painstaking work to speak those lines is half heart-breaking, half uplifting. Shakespeare’s words, ‘Answer me. Stand and unfold yourself’, take on a new significance here, as Wonder Boy gradually sees Sonny speak up and unfold himself, his trauma and his relationships, to the audience. We are privileged to watch his unfolding and his liberation.
Written by: Ross Willis
Directed by: Sally Cookson
Produced by: Charlie Tapp, Sian Weeding
Music by: Benji Bower