Boys will be Boys review (Wharf Theatre, Sydney)

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Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Streetbased on the life of sleazy stockbroker Jordan Belfort, offered a wild and fantastical glimpse into the macho, win-at-all-costs, greed-is-good culture which apparently dominates the high-flying trading industry. It was read by some (wrongly, I’d argue) as a celebration of a culture of excess and crime because of Scorsese’s highly-stylised, bright, fast-paced approach to story-telling. He left few moments to pause and reflect, and never worked to condemn the choices of his characters.

Melissa Bubnic’s new play about women in the currency trading game Boys will be boys takes a similarly energetic approach to this curious adversarial world, and, while there’s no real condemnation here either, there’s broader ground covered and more critical sociological and ethical questions posed. That Bubnic manages to do all this while telling such a compelling story in a brilliantly vibrant and entertaining fashion is truly impressive.

Astrid Wentworth (Danielle Cormack) is a legend amongst brokers having managed to stay on top of her game all the way to her middle age. Over the course of many power-suited years Astrid has become — as much as is possible — one of the boys. She’s had to work three times as hard as any of the men she works alongside and negotiate sexual politics at every turn — knowing that while she needs to constantly look out for herself, she has to be careful not to appear threatening to men who are insecure in their power. She also understands both where her gender will be an asset and where she needs to minimise her femininity to get by.

Into Astrid’s world comes a young, ambitious broker Priya (Sophia Roberts) who has one simple goal — to make a lot of money. Priya shows a hell of a lot more promise than Astrid’s other junior Harrison (Zindzi Okenyo), a young man whose family connections have landed him the job. So Astrid takes Priya under her wing with her unique brand of tough love. But as Priya starts to become successful, Astrid wonders how long she can stay on top in this man’s world.

At the same time, Astrid becomes involved in a relationship with a sex worker Isabelle (Meredith Penman). The boundaries of their partnership are never clear, but Isabelle gives Astrid a kind of human contact she desperately craves, and their relationship bears almost no similarity to a male-female sex work relationship. There are some things Astrid can’t do just like a man.

Director Paige Rattray embraces all of the colours in Bubnic’s play, which features cabaret-style musical performances from Astrid. She uses the tropes of a confessional cabaret to reveal more about Astrid’s attitudes to the world. All this unfolds on David Fleischer’s sleek, white, corporate set, which regularly transforms into a moody nightclub with the help of Ross Graham’s lighting.

It’s a production blessed with a superb all-female ensemble led by Danielle Cormack. Cormack’s Astrid is so imbued with confidence and determination that it’s impossible not to root for her as she rocks an all-white suit and stilettos with irresistible swagger. She also dives headfirst into the cabaret segments of the show, and it doesn’t matter much that her singing voice isn’t spectacular.

Sophia Roberts is the other side of the same coin as Priya — full of the same self-belief, but an integrity and slight innocence that Astrid has lost sight of. Roberts traces her character’s trajectory with great nuance as she comes to resemble Astrid throughout the performance. Meredith Penman is suitably mysterious as Isabelle, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as Astrid demands more and more of her.

Tina Bursill is both nuanced and dominant as alpha male Arthur and Zindzi Okenyo is full of frustration as the under-achieving Harrison. The casting of female actors in male roles pays off in spades with performances this strong.

Most cast members stumbled slightly over a line or two on opening night, but things should be running more smoothly within a few performances.

And there’s excellent, often hilarious material to work with. It’s a brave play in its ruthlessness and often vile, sexist, racist language, even if it’s an accurate representation of particular communities. Bubnic is particularly strong in her exploration of the complexities which can surround sexual assault and just how impossible a goal justice can be in certain circumstances.

Astrid Wentworth is tough as all hell, and her actions are often despicable, but she’s nowhere near as purely hedonistic and self-centred as Scorsese’s Jordan Belfort. Audiences love a male antihero, but female antiheroes (and I think you can classify Astrid as such) are rare as hen’s teeth. Is Astrid going to offer some explanation for her character? Some traumatic episode from her childhood that turned her into such a hard-ass? Do we need her to be damaged to empathise?

It’s one final layer of intrigue and complexity Bubnic throws into the final moments of what is already a meaty and astutely crafted play. The season is mostly sold-out, but there’s so much worth considering and discussing, you should try your hardest to nab a ticket. You can give Suncorp Twenties a go.

[box]Boys will be boys is at the Wharf 2 Theatre, Walsh Bay until May 16. Featured image by Brett Boardman[/box]

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