Yen by Anna Jordan is a study of brotherhood, the loss of childhood innocence, neglect and poverty cycles – all in a tender and emotive 85-minute show. Though thematically interesting and well put together, the 2015 script lacks real depth, and at times presents an uncomfortable view of working-class stereotypes.
Set in a small, squalid flat in Feltham, Yen follows brothers Hench and Bobbie as they navigate puberty, poverty, love, and their absent mother. Jenny, Hench’s romantic interest and replacement maternal figure, is added to the mix, to help explore how the brothers deal with real affection for the first time and adjust their own relationship accordingly.
Durham University’s Fourth Wall Theatre Company make the most out of Yen, with skilled acting, clever direction and a piece which perfectly suits its space. Danny Parker and Jack Firoozan, the leads, are particularly stand-out actors. They convincingly handle their brotherly dynamic, bouncing off each other as a sometimes touching, sometimes heart-breaking pair. Parker has a fantastic emotional range, and Firoozan’s comic timing has the audience howling.
Yet Yen feels like a two-dimensional, even patronising, portrayal of working class struggles. Various jokes and vulgarities, including naming the dog Taliban “because he’s vicious… and brown” assume a degree of callous ignorance by people from these backgrounds. The actors adopt unconvincing accents, and even the heavy scene change music fits a working-class stereotype. Though it’s not for me to assert whether these portrayals are accurate, perpetuating these ideas doesn’t add anything new in the conversation – by very definition, stereotypes are overused, and as such need to be handled extremely carefully.
I find Anna Jordan’s script weak, with stock female characters and another patronising suggestion that Jenny can “tame” these feral men. Jordan plays on the shocking and the grotesque, eliciting raw, emotive responses in the audience, rather than building a truly innovative story or message.
Yen has potential. It is an interesting and much-needed exploration of male vulnerability, and admittedly the play is engaging and shocking. Its message – that people aren’t ever wholly to blame for their actions – is important, and seems to have the audience impressed. Thematically interesting, and well executed by the company, Yen is simply let down by stereotypes which can’t sit comfortably with me. Not a bad show – just a bad choice of script.