Closing the popular queer season at the King’s Head theatre in Islington is LGBT love story set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo, this debut play from actor James Corley skillfully balances world politics alongside domestic drama as the lives of four people living on a council estate become increasingly enmeshed.
Set in 1998-99, at the height of the Kosovan conflict, a well-to-do mother, Viv and her highly-strung 19-year-old son Ben move into the World’s End estate in Chelsea. Next door, they meet Besnik and his father Ylli, who fled Kosovo when Besnik was very young.
Harry Mackrill, who is currently Associate on David Hare’s adaptation of Peer Gynt at the National Theatre, directs the gay love story at the heart of the play with tenderness but the scenes exploring cultural tensions between the two parents feel underpowered.
What is lovely about this story is that this is not the coming-of-age, coming out play you’ve seen a thousand times before; both the young men are certain in their sexuality, even if they are uncertain about everything else in their world.
Tom Milligan plays anxious teen Ben with hyperactive nervousness, which made me wonder at first if he was meant to be an autistic character – new situations scared him, he stuttered and he was neurotic about the slightest change. This was revealed to be a strong reaction against an itinerant childhood where he wasn’t allowed to set down roots, but the actor’s overemphasis of this nervous trait from the start left him little wriggle room as tension mounted later on.
Conversely, Nikolaos Brahimllari’s performance of Ylli, feels underwhelming. His country is being destroyed and he feels compelled to go and fight for it, even though it means certain death, yet when he expresses this to Viv and his son, it lacks the passion and anguish one might expect.
All of the action is set on a tiny triangle of stage which economically represents both flats and the hallway between them. Joined with subtle lighting by Jai Morjaria, Rachel Stone’s set comprises two wooden doors with gold numbers 11 and 13 indicate how crammed together the two residences are and cardboard moving boxes serve to indicate the transience of Ben and Viv’s life.
It is lovely to see a Kosovan actor playing a Kosovan role in Mirlind Bega, who grew up in Wakefield where he first discovered acting aged 9. His Besnik’s easy-going charm and resilience contrasts well with Ben’s unease.
The romance between the young men is a slow burner, built around a friendship and mutual love of video games, specifically Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Their love is at the burning heart of the play and are wonderful to watch but in other moments the staging feels a little stilted and awkward. Particularly between Ylli and Besnik, where Ylli is often stood rigidly, not reacting as his father berates him for being gay.
Current political tensions over immigrants are played out in Ylli’s living room between Ylli and Ben’s mother Viv, played beautifully with upper-middle-class condescension by Patricia Potter and with some of the best lines in the play. Upon discovering how cheap the rent is on Ylli’s two-bed council flat, Viv whispers to Ben: ‘It’s not fair.’ ‘
Mum, they’ve lost everything’ says Ben,
‘Well so have we!’ says Viv.
It concisely hits to the heart of much of the nation’s fears around refugees and immigrants and it’s done with humour and a light touch – this isn’t a polemic – in fact it feels very firmly rooted in the period of 1998-99.
The two boys come out as the more sympathetic characters, righting the wrongs their parents have made and their romance is a constant in a world of chaos. It’s a beautiful conclusion to the King’s Head’s successful season.
Until 21 September kingsheadtheatre/website