Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th September, 2016
Keith Gray’s wonderful coming-of-age novel is brought to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by Carl Miller. A quartet of actors narrate and enact the story of three boys, Blake (Fred Haig), Sim (Carl Au) and Kenny (Faaiz Mbelizi), who embark on a journey to Scotland, taking with them the stolen ashes of their recently dead friend Ross (Shea Davis – ever-present as a ghostly observer, appearing in flashback scenes and as a range of characters along the way.)
The action is slick. The boys share the narration, often arguing about who should represent whom, dropping in and out of character with split-second precision. The style reminds me of early Godber. Teechers, say, or Bouncers. Director Tony Graham makes the most of his cast’s physicality in order to populate Jason Southgate’s sparse but versatile set. Movement sequences (by Tom Jackson Greaves) bridge events in the narrative, often portraying what the boys’ words cannot articulate.
Carl Au is superb as the highly-strung but pragmatic Sim, flipping to the other end of the scale to portray Kat, a girl Kenny encounters on the way. Faaiz Mbelizi’s Kenny is gauche and uncool, contrasting with Fred Haig’s sensible and mature Blake. All three are splendid but it is the willowy Shea Davis who mesmerises, shaking out his long hair with a slow smile as Ross watches his friends bicker and mess around. The performances are flawless from all four and are chock-full of nicely observed details alongside the more choreographed, stylised moments. At times, the imagery is as beautiful as the writing. The bungee jump, for example, played against a reconstruction of the accident that killed Ross. Arnim Preiss’s lighting adds to the physical and verbal lyricism of the moment.
This is a show where memory and narrative entwine, until the truth is teased out. A story of boys going on an emotional, developmental journey as much as a cross-country train trek. Told by blisteringly skilful performers, Ostrich Boys gives us endearing characters, verbal and physical humour, fun, tension and a deeply poignant denouement. This is superior storytelling, as entertaining and moving as theatre should be. Get your head out of the sand and get your arse to Coventry; this is one production you would be foolish to miss.