The Drayton Arms is one of my favourite pub theatres in London. It’s in a dreamy part of town; the kind of place where blue plaques adorn large white houses, and you half expect Mr Banks to appear around the corner. This venue always has a friendly welcome and, despite the lack of leg room, it’s relatively comfy. I haven’t been back in a while, so cheerfully walked through nearby Brompton Cemetery for a Saturday matinee performance of Soho Boy.
You’ve got to admire the guts of an actor brave enough to perform a one man show, and Owen Dennis must have heaps to take to the stage to perform a musical on his own. Soho Boy is a coming-of-age story that doesn’t shy away from darkness. We meet Spencer, a young gay man as he ventures out into Soho nightlife for the first time, full of excitement and youthful innocence. He seems to meet someone far too easily than is possible for most singles in London and lands a gig in a cabaret venue. But the show also explores the darker side of the world he enters, and without spoiling the heartbreakingly raw end to the show, it’s not quite as fun and innocent as it first seems.
Most of the narrative is told through songs, and whilst enjoyable at the time, they’re not particularly memorable. The music isn’t ground-breaking, but it effectively tells Spencer’s story with a mix of drama, tension and passion. ‘Leathers and Chains’ is a particularly striking musical number, stripping down Spencer’s initial innocence – literally. The use of sound in the show generally is perhaps more successful than the songs themselves. In moments when Spencer is clearly scared and uncomfortable the background music and sound effects are very effective at creating a sense of tension and impending doom in the space.
Dennis’ performance of Spencer is quite a sight to behold. He carries the show with energy and warmth that instantly gets the audience on side, and with a mostly strong vocal performance. It’s an intimate show in a small theatre, which can sometimes feel uncomfortable, yet Dennis puts the audience at ease from the start. The nudity and graphic depictions of sex don’t feel like gimmicks as can sometimes be the case, but this is perhaps not one to bring your parents along to. In fact, the only awkward moments were when Dennis was struggling to get into his next costume – and there were a lot of outfit changes for a 50-minute show. Whilst the soundtrack of Soho Boy probably won’t end up on my musicals playlist, it’s a bold show and, without giving away the ending, the final moments are both heart-breaking and filled with hope.
Music and Lyrics by: Paul Emelion Daly
Directed by: Matt Strachan
Musical Direction by: Aaron Clingham
Produced by: Richard Lambert / LAMBCO Productions
Soho Boy plays at Drayton Arms Theatre until 4 June. Further information and bookings can be found here. The show will then be transferring to Edinburgh Fringe, playing at theSpaceUK’s Symposium Hall during most of August.