WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT BOBBY (OFF EASTENDERS)
The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Wednesday 10th April, 2019
The titular Bobby is a young lad from the fictional London borough of Walford, famed for committing the murder of his elder sister and for braining his mum with a hockey stick before being caught bang to rights and carted off to a detention centre. This play by George Attwell-Gerhards looks at the psychological effects of such storylines on the child actors who enact them.
Here, Annie (Laura Adebisi) is a twelve-year-old who, being no longer cute enough for yogurt adverts, lands a job in what seems to be a particularly sordid soap opera. She puts a hockey stick to good use against her mother before getting locked in her father’s basement and fall victim to his sexual predations. The action jumps from Annie’s audition, to shooting scenes from the soap, to her deteriorating home life… with Attwell-Gerhards’s script charting the blurring of lines between fiction and reality, the pressures of sudden fame on someone so young, the treatment of young stars by the media – there’s a lot packed into this hour-long piece and director Lucy Bird keeps things taut, as her cast of three flick between characters, like switching channels by remote control.
Tom Bulpett is Annie’s dad, thrust into a PR role for which he is unprepared and unsuited. He is also a casting director, and Annie’s soap co-star. Cara Mahooney is Annie’s mum, and a friendly make-up artist who takes Annie under her wing, and a TV director, feeling the pressure. Both actors are top-notch and there is never any confusion about who they are at any particular moment, their characterisations are well-differentiated and clear. The characters represent a range of abusive and exploitative experiences Annie faces – the play certainly exposes a kind of child abuse that is rarely considered: the effect on the young psyche of playing out extreme and disturbing situations. We have all heard stories of grown-up child stars struggling to cope with life in the real world, and such stories invariably tell of crime and drugs and mental illness.
As the central figure, Laura Adebisi is credibly child-like, enthusiastic and eager to please. Adebisi combines vulnerability with stroppiness, as Annie lashes out at her real dad, while chumming up with her onscreen, abusive dad. We see her psychological decline in tandem with her onscreen character’s deprivations, culminating in a scene with an iron that must be a homage to Little Mo and Trevor, that iconic moment of a woman standing up to her abuser.
This is powerful stuff. Darkly comic to begin with, satirising the industry, it develops into a gripping psychological drama. The transitions are slick and effective, and there is dissonant sound underlining Annie’s distress. I would suggest the TV screen that comes on at the end is too small to have the necessary impact, but the intimacy of the Old Joint Stock puts us right in the action, making us as viewers complicit in the exploitation of a child.
There are a couple of instances when they ask, “Annie, are you OK?” – and I can’t decide if this is unintentionally awkward or intentionally clever…
This is the second show from Birmingham’s Paperback Theatre that I have seen in a couple of months. They’re two for two in terms of excellence, in my view.