Boy Brings Grim 1980s Back To Life

James Combes 

Education is a beautiful thing. It is even more effective when the subject matter is something about which you thought that there was nothing to tell.

David Eldridge’s Market Boy, is currently playing at the National Theatre on London's south-bank. A black-comedy, combining hilarity and harshness, this is more than a simple play.

This is Thatcher’s 1980s. Bottled-up, distilled and put on display for all to see. Beginning with sex and the Free Market, it routes itself in the “everyone for himself ” economy - best summarised by Harry Enfield’s character Loadsamoney.

Before long there is violence, murder, mass unemployment, the drug-addled rave culture, and shell-suits. Something for everyone. Market Boy is not for the squeamish. If phrases such as “go and ask her if she’ll give you crabs”, and “useless streaks of anaemic piss” are not your thing, then best stay away.

It opens with a timid 13-year-old - known simply as Boy - being told to get a job at Romford market in the English southern county of Essex. A harsh, unforgiving world beckons where only the strong survive. Each scene is punctuated by 1980s classic songs by chart-toppers, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bananarama and Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Eldridge has littered the play with one-liners. One character is referred to as a “Plastic Gary Kemp”. But like most aspects of life, it is best to keep things simple. This is a task that Eldridge excels in with the best line of the piece: “remember Samo?” Anyone who recalls Grange Hill’s heyday will immediately respond: “Just say no.”

Romford market is a place where women are either schoolgirls, single-mums, thieves or transvestites. Each one is fair-game to the lecherous advances of the market traders. The moral, if there is one, is simply to “Stay sharp in the ruthless world of the mouthy Essex traders”.

The performances are stunning and colourful, although Danny Worters’ whiny voice does become grating after a while. Boy is brilliantly realised and completely believable character. But Eldridge is subtle too. Lashings of irony are found under the surface. Boy becomes the personification of the market. He is a person in moral decline. A man who will simply dump a dead body because his boss tells him to.

Here is real pathos and tragedy - potential obliterated by an inability to see what else is possible. A caricature of the notorious British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher is used to great effect: as the “posh totty”, the voice of the Free Market, and as a hallucinogenic nightmare crab.

An elaborately-staged scene sees the Meat Man, played brilliantly by Jonathan Cullen, praising the greatness of British produce to the increasing strains of Rule Britannia. In a beautifully orchestrated manoeuvre, the cast drop from the rigging waving Union Jacks. And just when it seems the hilarity is at its peak, the scene is garnished perfectly by a winged Margaret Thatcher descending from the heavens.

The ticket price is worth it, just for that one scene. Tears of laughter will be the inevitable response. And if you thought that markets were dull and mundane, be prepared to be re-educated.