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Yen (Manchester Royal Exchange)

Sophie cast the world premiere of Bruntwood Award winner YEN by Anna Jordan, for Manchester Royal Exchange Studio Theatre, which opened to rave reviews across the board. It transferred to the Royal Court, London, in January 2016.


Directed by Ned Bennett (Pomona at the Orange Tree Theatre,) YEN explores a childhood lived without boundaries and the consequences of being forced to grow up on your own.


★★★★★ “Extraordinary” – The Guardian

★★★★★ “Unforgettable” –  Manchester Evening News

★★★★★ “Captivating”- The Good Review

★★★★★ “Triumph”-  The Public Reviews

★★★★★ “Phenomenal” – Upstaged Manchester

★★★★ “Gripping” –  The Stage

★★★★ “Moving” – Remote Goat


★★★★★ Guardian, Alfred Hickling

‘Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood prize-winning play takes place in a filthy flat where 16-year-old Hench and his 13-year-old brother Bobby live alone gawping at video games and violent porn while taking turns to wear the single T-shirt in their possession. There’s no adult supervision, though their mother occasionally shambles over from her latest boyfriend’s place and announces her arrival by passing out in a diabetic coma.


It’s the kind of grim, beneath-the-breadline scenario in which you think you know what you’re in for – until the transformative appearance of Jennifer, a practical, animal-loving Welsh girl who shows concern for the brothers’ neglected dog (named Taliban “because he’s vicious … and brown”). Bearing plastic toys, bargain buckets of fish fingers and a wisdom in excess of her years, she succeeds in taming both Taliban and his semi-feral owners.


Though it appears fairly modest, the dynamic range of Jordan’s writing is extraordinary. It’s rare for a play to encompass such extremes of violence and tenderness; and the intensity is further enhanced by the dark symbolism of Ned Bennett’s production.


There’s outstanding work from Alex Austin’s Hench, whose hangdog demeanour finds a horrifyingly literal expression; Jake Davies as the ebullient but psychologically fragile Bobby; and Annes Elwy as Jennifer, whose implacable compassion is deeply moving without becoming saintly or sentimental. Even Sian Breckin, as the catastrophically irresponsible mother, comes with a bare minimum of redeeming features. Jordan’s play achieves the uncommon feat of being difficult to watch yet easy to love – anyone with a yen for consummately well-crafted drama should seek it out.’


★★★★★ Manchester Evening News, Sarah Walters:

‘A play inspired by a harrowing news report about two neglected teenage brothers abandoned to live the sort of depraved lifestyle that ends up getting them in the headlines doesn’t exactly sound like fruitful ground for a laugh-out-loud script.

But everything about Anna Jordan’s Yen is done to defy presumptions, injecting the most uncomfortable situations with a savagely dry humour that compels you to feel compassion for these lost boys when what you want to feel is disgust.


All four cast members make unforgettable debuts for the Royal Exchange, drawing on the considerable theatre experience they have garnered between them elsewhere and on Ned Bennett’s exquisite direction.


The extraordinary skill with which the production forces you to question who is really the one in the wrong here, and to do that with such humour and without an author’s judgement on what are sometimes barbaric acts of cruelty, is a combination that deservedly won this the Bruntwood Prize.’


★★★★ The Good Review, Tracey-Ann Thompson:

‘Yen, the Bruntwood Prize-winning play from Anna Jordan, is extraordinary […] Anna Jordan’s script is just incredible. She has created a quartet of instantly likeable, but fundamentally flawed, characters. The journey that we take with Bobby and Hench is entertaining and harrowing in equal measure. Ned Bennett’s direction is faultless. There was not a second when my attention wavered; I was genuinely enraptured by this play.

The performances were just as fantastic as the script. I was bowled over by Alex Austin’s (Hench) beautifully fluid physicality. Jake Davies’ performance as Bobbie was equally hysterical and devastating. Annes Elwy (Jenny) gave a stunningly sensitive performance, completely at odds with Sian Breckin’s frantic Maggie. The brief moment when Jenny and Maggie eventually meet is positively captivating.


To be frank, the content of this play will not appeal to the more light-hearted theatre-goer. But in my humble opinion, the plays that stay with you most are the ones that make you question your prejudices, especially when you find a delinquent character endearing. By their own admission, Bobby and Hench are “hoodrats”, but given their mother has abandoned them, what chance do they really have? There is no doubt the play is disturbing, but it’s definitely not inconceivable.


Some of my favourite theatre memories are in the Royal Exchange Studio. Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle and Tender Napalm, Chloe Moss’ amazing The Gatekeeper, and former Bruntwood prize-winning Brilliant Adventures, by Alastair MacDowall. Yen has now joined this very personal hall of fame. It is a very relevant, emotional, and entertaining piece of art, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.’


★★★★★ The Public Reviews, Hannah Hiett:

‘The energy between Austin and Davies is electric. Their sense of fraternity is so real, their characterisation so flawless that, despite the rows of people sitting on two sides of the performance space, it is easy to forget they are actors and that you aren’t sitting in the corner of their living room, watching their lives unfold.


Jake Davies as Bobby is a coiled spring of burgeoning testosterone. He doesn’t seem to know if he’s laughing or tussling with Hench from one moment to the next… always high as a kite, perpetually kind, teasing, foul-mouthed and childishly loyal, the contrast between his naivety and his vulgar, adult humour (and lifestyle) carefully treads the line between shocking and hilarious throughout the first half of the play. In contrast, Austin’s Hench is reserved, a little bitter, long-suffering and cripplingly shy. His physicality is perfect – awkward, gangling and malnourished he moves with a skinny lack of grace, a quick, suspicious turn of the head and a contained violence. He is Bobby’s keeper, the one who holds him down when Jen storms into their flat, an intruder, and a ray of sunshine.


Love is not in Hench’s vocabulary, not much is. His inability to express himself – in love, in resentment, in anger – serves some of the most tender and heart-breaking moments in the play.Bobbie too, though he can talk for England when he’s in mood, has no way of expressing complex negative emotions except through violent loss of self-control, which eventually ends in tragedy. And it is a tragedy, you can’t help but pity Bobbie. Despite what he’s done, you’ve seen his capacity for love and the neglect he’s suffered.


Hench and Bobbie’s chaotic mother Maggie is played by Sian Breckin. Breckin makes a charming villain. She giggles likes a teenager, pokes cruel fun at Hench and acts like one of the kids when she bothers to pop by, booze-sodden, short of money and empty-bellied. When the play opens, Maggie has been away for weeks, staying with her boyfriend ‘minge-face Alan’. Bobbie, almost oedipally in love with his mother, always keeps a hopeful bottle of lucozade by the sofabed, ready for when she comes home on a drunken, diabetic low.


When crusading animal-lover Jen (a wonderfully sympathetic Annes Elwy) charges into their world, she turns it upside-down. She brings with her hope – the possibility of education, adventure, romance – of joining the world outside. The first half of the play is characterised by lightness – an almost hysterical sense of breaking out, of breaking free. The ugliness of the second half is made all the more tragic by comparison, because we’ve learned about the humanity, neglect, hope and disappointment that lies behind the shock headlines.Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood Prize-winning play is an absolute triumph. Her writing is witty, honest and profoundly moving. She is one to watch.


★★★★ The Stage:

‘Davies is brilliantly puppyish and energetic as Bobby, forever tearing around the stage; his character is supposed to be 13, yet he is simultaneously both younger and older than his years, while Austin in contrast is all sharp-cheeked awkwardness as the older of the two. The scenes of his growing attraction to new neighbour, Jennifer, are tenderly played. “I don’t know how to touch you,” he confesses.’


British Theatre Guide, David Chadderton:

'There are very impressive performances from all four cast members: Alex Austin as Hench, Sian Breckin as mother Maggie, Jake Davies as Bobbie and Annes Alwy as Jenny. Ned Bennett’s production is on a traverse stage—with the audience on two opposing sides—in a spare but effective design by Georgia Lowe.’ Exeunt Magazine, Natasha Tripney:‘The actors all nail it, completely, particularly the complex relationship between the brothers, a tangle of protectiveness and resentment. There’s a bit when Alex Austin’s sixteen year old Hench seems to almost make himself thinner, to pull his skin tighter, his eyes deep as pits. Jake Davies’ Bobby is far more puppy-like, endearing but with an edge of menace – there’s a sense of unease about what he might become.’



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Photographs: Jonathan Keenan

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