Review by Rosie Holmes
Since Eliza Clarke’s debut novel Boy Parts was published in 2020, it has created quite the buzz on the internet and social media, becoming a huge hit. Selling more than 30,000 copies in the UK, it’s now been adapted for the stage as a one-woman show starring Aimeé Kelly as the volatile Irina. As a huge fan of the book myself, I was extremely keen to see how the book would translate, as well as the hugely unreliable narrator, Irina.
Boy Parts is a dark, but sometimes funny, psychological thriller that follows Irina, a photographer in her late twenties, who, after art school in London, has found herself back in her native Newcastle. Irina scouts non-stereotypically attractive men on the street and persuades them to model for her in erotic shots. As the play continues, Irina’s narrative becomes more violent, volatile, and unreliable. What is real, and what is not, becomes harder to distinguish. It’s increasingly hard to know for sure which of Irina’s unhinged actions are real or not.
Perhaps one of the reasons the book itself was so popular was the interesting subversion of the male gaze and the exploration of female desire and power. This aspect of the book is wholly explored on the stage; in perhaps one of the most impactful lines of the evening, Irina states, “Do I have to smash a glass over the head of every single man I come into contact with, just so I leave a fucking mark’, and whilst Irina is never vulnerable herself, it’s a clear discussion of the lack of power women have, especially working class women in the art world that Irina finds herself in. She uses her photography to show the world what she is capable of doing, both sexually and creatively, as she strives to be taken seriously, sending herself into a destructive downward spiral.
Irina is played by Aimeé Kelly as a one-woman show, inhabiting all the other characters, as a home counties “suit”. Playing not only Irina but her best friend Flo and Flo’s scouse boyfriend Michael, Kelly displays a wonderful talent for accents, character acting, and the ability to flit between characters. She does this effortlessly, able to completely transform herself with something as simple as the way she stands or her hand gestures. Kelly is breezy at first glance, funny and then quickly descends into a downward spiral, hinting at something more sinister as the play progresses. I’ll be honest: as a fan of the book, Kelly’s portrayal of Irina is not what I imagined, but what she actually delivers is more than my paltry imagination was capable of.
The writing really brings the character of Irina alive. Eliza Clarke’s book is witty, and Gill Greer's adaptation for the stage has done this absolute justice. Amongst the increasing unease and volatility of Irina’s life and work are some fabulously funny observations, including asides that made the audience laugh time and time again. Humour is brought out as she talks of her friend Flo’s dull boyfriend who “has probably the last man bun in the world” or the night she got “drunk in Clapham like a f****ing estate agent”. Comedic writing is not the only strength here though; there are plenty more profound moments that ensure the piece lives up to its description as a sinister exploration of sexuality and gender.
Video, lighting and sound by Hayley Egan, Christopher Nairne and Tom Foskett-Barnes respectively, all work together to create the effect that Irina is on screen. She herself is starring in a film, much like the one she shows at an east end art gallery. This is an interesting and clever take; the piece itself is about subverting the erotic gaze, while Irina states that women will never be able to be photographed without being subjected to the male gaze. Irina herself is subjected to this as camera flashes throughout capture her, and hazy projections show her on screen, in something akin to a horror film. Sound builds suspense throughout, the beginning making us feel as if we are at the beginning of an arthouse film, perhaps creating a false sense of security.
Boy Parts was a hugely successful novel and, in this case, a hugely successful play. Subverting the male gaze and creating suspense in an increasingly tense thriller, the piece is full of witty observations and ambiguous violence. Aimeé Kelly is sensational as the unreliable narrator Irina, and while fans of the book will not be disappointed by the piece, those new to the material will no doubt be delighted too.
Boy Parts plays at Soho Theatre until Saturday 25th November 2023. Tickets are available from sohotheatre.com