King’s Head Theatre, London – until 21 September 2019
It’s 1998, 19-year-old Ben and his mum Viv are moving house again. This time, they’re cramming all their belongings into a one-bedroom ex-council flat in World’s End, Chelsea. They quickly make friends with their neighbours, Ylli and his son Besnik, who are Albanian refugees. The aspirational Viv is unfazed by the move but quiet and high-strung Ben can’t cope. He’s determined to shut himself away with his Nintendo, but the charming and confident Besnik has other ideas.
Part gay, coming-of-age love story and part historical snapshot, James Corley’s debut play is a detailed character study but one that isn’t quite sure what it wants to say. Mental health, single parenting and self-acceptance are prominent themes that are set against political and economic forces irrevocably shaping these characters’ lives. Jobs are lost and gained, the millennium approaches, and bombs are dropped thousands of miles away. A shattering climax and quick ending show that, contrary to the title, life goes on even in the worst of circumstances.
However, the script takes no particular stance on any of the events that dictate the story’s course, and the characters are largely uninterested in them. There is plenty of conflict, but most of it is familial bickering that comes from clashing personal interests. Despite the changing relationships, these people are largely detached from the world around them. The only prolonged anger comes from Ylli, but his extreme, political views are sporadically expressed and eventually sidelined.
Individual scenes make for moving set pieces, though. It’s lovely to watch Ben and Besnik’s relationship blossom. The actors (Mirlind Bega and Tom Milligan) have a relaxed and intimate chemistry. Patricia Potter as Viv also has some great moments with Milligan in scenes where she is trying to navigate life with a son whose anxiety barely allows him to leave the house, let alone have a job or engage with the world beyond his TV screen. Each character wrestles with their own inner conflict, and they juxapose each other well.
Corley has a good sense for naturalistic dialogue and creating convincing domestic scenarios but they don’t fully connect to a wider context. It’s not bad at all for a first play, but it lacks wider scope and intention – much like these characters who let life wash over them without being motivated to fight for or against much at all.