REVIEW: Porridge Boy, Ageless Arts (Greenwich Theatre)

With the development of new work at the heart of its mission, Greenwich Theatre recently welcomed new production company Ageless Arts for the premiere of Porridge Boy. Championing previously unpublished playwrights over 50, Ageless Arts’ inaugural production is a semi-autobiographical musical by Irish singer-songwriter, Brendan Shelly. Set in 1979 Ireland, against the backdrop of The Troubles, it focuses on a family torn apart by grief. Billed as a “powerful, personal hug of a show” with musical stylings reminiscent of Once, it’s a promising concept but unfortunately needs a lot of work.

Loosely based on Shelly’s own childhood experiences, Porridge Boy introduces us to Joey (Ryan Roy) and Dan (Luke Coughlan) who, along with their Mum (Kathryn Rutherford), are struggling to come to terms with the death of their Dad. It’s been six months and Joey’s only left the house for the funeral and school, while Dan’s steadily going off the rails. They’re both having to hold things together at home for Mum, who clearly can’t cope with a colicky baby. To make matters worse, Mum’s already moved on to a new man, Maurice (Shane Morgan), an authoritarian copper with strict ideas about how young boys should behave.

Kathryn Rutherford as Mum and Shane Morgan as Maurice

It has all the makings of an interesting story, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, despite being very long. (Press were invited to the first performance, which was billed as having a running time of 1 hr 50 mins plus interval, but it was around an hour longer than that, and made worse by a late start.) The advertising materials also boast that it contains 17 brand new songs, which sounds like a lot – and it feels it too. It’s not a well crafted piece of musical theatre where the songs are an integral part of the narrative. It’s just a play where songs are plonked in at regular intervals to break up the dialogue. The songs themselves also fail to live up to the promise of an Irish musical. They’re unsophisticated and repetitive, and just serve to drag out the production for even longer than is needed.

The direction is also weak, and makes it feel very much like an over-acted amateur dramatic production, despite what seems to be a solid cast. With Brendan Shelly also making his directorial debut (alongside co-director Coco Mbassi) it feels as if the piece is suffering from one person being too heavily involved, preventing anyone within the artistic team taking a step back to consider the material critically. (Ageless Arts, it transpires, is Shelly’s own production company).

It’s clear that this is a personal, perhaps even cathartic, piece for the writer, who also draws on his experiences as a therapist working with young people. And there are some moments where he really effectively conveys the experience of grief. But as a piece of musical theatre it lacks a compelling narrative or effective structure. At present there is a title character but he’s not truly the protagonist, nor is anyone else. Peripheral characters add interest (and length) but, again, don’t really advance the plot. And with only a limited sense of what’s going on in the world outside the family’s four walls, it feels like a missed opportunity to present the play within interesting historical context.

What this production desperately needs, if it is to have a future life, is some therapy of its own in the form of a dramaturg. There is so much potential here but, like its characters, Porridge Boy needs a little help to move on.

Porridge Boy played at Greenwich Theatre from 23 to 26 May 2024. We received a complimentary ticket to the press performance on 23 May.

Leave a Reply