Review: Boy (Summerhall)
Updated: Jul 28
Carly Wij’s two-hander toys with gender but is not progressive enough to play with the big kids
“That’s the difference between boys and girls: one has something where the other has nothing.” We are well beyond defining gender in such narrow terms of course, but it is a line that epitomises the tone of Carly Wij’s Boy: a complicated story about gender, told through the eyes of children. It is based on the real-life experiences of David Reimer, a Canadian who was raised as a girl after his penis was severely injured in a medical accident, and ultimately came to identify as a man.
Performed by Jeroen van der Ven and Vanja maria Godee, the story is told through dolls and stuffed toys. Their delivery is excitable, even competitive and stroppy at times, mimicking children at play. It is a creative and effective way to convey the strangeness of the story through a child’s eyes and makes the darker moments of the play all the more impactful without becoming insensitive. It also allows for storytelling that juxtaposes itself; it is at once a cautionary bedtime story, a modern tragedy, and a front-page tabloid article.
But for all the writing that highlights the stupidly restrictive ways that are used to define gender, the show falls short of recognising the complexity of gender. In fact, the longer the performance wears on, the more it seems to imply that gender is inseparable from sex. It never says this explicitly, but at the same time, it does not do enough to avoid spreading a biologically essentialist view of gender. In other words, it comes too close to implying that someone who is born a boy will always be a boy; that the urge to play with screwdrivers instead of dolls will always win out.
This is a play that would have been at home on a stage about twenty to thirty years ago, when instances of someone transitioning between genders were treated as an anomaly, something almost out of science fiction, and that certainly bears no relevance to anyone in the audience. Reimer’s story is worth returning to, but it is necessary to handle it with care. Today, in Edinburgh in 2022, it is not good enough to imply that gender is what is, or even was, in your pants. Two stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: "I'm in shock. It's a horrible story, beautifully told. The worry is that transphobes will take it the wrong way. It's not about that. It's actually about being yourself."
Boy will run at Summerhall in the Main Hall until August 28th