Cola Boy is unfortunately a really uncomfortable experience. We have lots of discussions these days about what is and isn’t acceptable on stage, but I feel it might be quite universally expected that spraying your audience with perfume without consent three times is a staggeringly disagreeable theatrical device. There is very little consideration here for the way people might react to what’s happening, which to me feels like an oversight in care for the audience. Aiming to tackle the story of a young Scottish journalist turned DJ arriving in Dubai in the 1990s, Writer-Director Sarah Michelle Durrant’s adaptation of Ryan Battles’ book struggles to create a coherent story. Instead, we are shown incomplete vignettes of sections of the book’s narrative that offer up little insight or cogent story.
The piece begins showing DJ Jimmy Irvine planning to organise gigs with a friend in Aberdeen, when a life-changing incident soon turns their plans upside down. Jimmy finds himself being offered a job as a journalist in Dubai, then throws us instantly into his pungent sex life with his flight attendant friend. Turbulent events land in Jimmy’s life one after another, he ends up in a hotel room in Heathrow Airport attempting to smuggle drugs back to the United Arab Emirates concealed in sealed vinyl records. And then… the Fourth Wall shatters abruptly. It feels as though the most flashy and grungy sections of the book have been put on the stage in an attempt to get us to read the whole thing, leaving the show feeling completely hollow in a narrative sense.
That general sense of emptiness carries into the characters, who appear as flashes in the moment of Jimmy’s life story. Jimmy suffers from protagonist syndrome as a character, as we are forced to see the world through his lens he doesn’t come off as having much sense of personhood himself. His friend appears in the first two scenes and then is abruptly taken out of the story. As a placard with his face is held up, I felt that there was a feeling of unease among the audience in the show that I attended as to how we are supposed to respond. The picture of him made some people laugh, only to realise that a concurrently occurring tragic incident was happening offstage. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Jimmy’s female love interest through a sex scene – a narrative device that it if it isn’t problematic, is certainly old fashioned.
I feel as though the actors were really doing the best they could with the material they had. The Scottish accents on show were unusual – I don’t believe that they were the actors’ natives accents, leading to two conclusions. If the actors are Scottish, they were attempting an Aberdonian or Doric twang that didn’t pay off and came across sounding false. If the actors are not Scottish, it is up to the Director to make sure they are delivering believable accents. Instead of having an authentic voice, the Aberdonian accents plied against a sense of seriousness that I feel was intended. Conversely, the Glaswegian accent came across much more naturalistic and well-rehearsed, and I was relieved to hear it.
A large bed and DJ decks take up over two thirds of the stage, leaving little room for physicality amongst the performers. Instead they are confined to a small section in between the two, with a DJ ominously and silently hanging over them the entire time. I was hopeful that the presence of the DJ might be used for an interesting scene taking place at a rave. Despite the promotional material suggesting Jimmy is desperate to host a desert rave, this never happens. Instead, we are treated to a weird fourth wall break that disjoints the narrative and feels a little too on the nose to make an impact. Cola Boy’s website also makes reference to themes such as Sharia Law banning premarital sex and homosexuality in the UAE – but neither of these are referenced in the piece.
We are only treated to teases of what the book holds, and I feel as though Battles’ prose probably far surpasses what’s on display in this piece. The piece condenses what is likely a quite venerable story down to something aimed to be a digestible supplement. Instead, it comes across as too shallow. The piece needs someone with greater experience writing and directing for the stage to come in and rearrange the pieces from the bottom up. There’s a story here, just not expressed in a way that shows off anyone involved right now. Everyone that’s involved deserves to come off better than they do.
To round off where we started, I think the production team were aiming to create something multi-sensory here. I am just really disappointed that anyone would think it would be okay to spray perfumed scents over people without asking for their verbal consent first. Even content warnings, which I didn’t see on prominent display, wouldn’t be enough to justify consent here. To match this discomfort, the final section of the piece sees the actors try to get people out of their seats to dance to rave music. On the night that I attended most of the audience quickly left upon seeing this, leaving a bizarre taste in your mouth about the whole experience.
Recommended Drink: Is Pepsi okay?
Want to see if you disagree? Cola Boy plays at the Symposium Hall – Annexe until August 19th at 20:20. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.
Correction: The original publication of this piece incorrectly stated that Ryan Battles adapted his own book onto stage, when in fact it was adapted and directed by Sarah Michelle Durrant. The company have requested for it to be mentioned that they met all venue terms and conditions with the spraying of perfume on the audience.