Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (****)

© Richard Davenport; Bobbie (Jake Davies), Alex Austin (Hench)

© Richard Davenport; Bobbie (Jake Davies), Alex Austin (Hench)

Yen is an old word, not often heard these days. My mother used to use it as in `oh, I had such a yen for…’

In Anna Jordan’s Yen, it’s a short form and family nick-name for Jenny, a bright and shining star who enters the dark, festering world of Hench and his brother Robbie, living feral lives dominated by violent video games and porn. Hench and Robbie are still only youngsters, teenagers.

Yen comes to also stand for, as in my mother’s definition, something yearned for, desired – and in Hench’s case, just out of reach, barely comprehensible and unable to properly articulate.

It’s a sense of love and tenderness. And Jen/Yen’s ability to break through Hench and Robbie’s defensive, armour-plated roughness is something to behold.

© Richard Davenport  Annes Elwy (Jenny)

© Richard Davenport
Annes Elwy (Jenny)

No wonder Yen was a winner of the increasingly coveted Bruntwood new-writing prize (this is the second prize-winner to have appeared in London this month; Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone is also currently in town at Richmond’s Orange Tree: see previous review).  It’s a play that depresses and moves by turns, a veritable roller-coaster of an experience but one that leaves you admiring Jordan’s empathy for a world of such disorder, crying out for social intervention.

For Yen is, after all, a brutal, intensive course in maternal neglect – blame by implication rather than spelt out. We see Hench and Robbie’s Mum – the diabetic, often drunken Maggie – appearing occasionally in their lives. But mostly the two boys are left on their own, victims of Maggie’s chaotic life.

© Richard Davenport. Sian Breckin (Maggie)

© Richard Davenport.
Sian Breckin (Maggie)

The consequences, Jordan shows, are devastating and violent involving bed-wetting, canine murder and rape amongst them.

But interwoven into this mayhem, she also injects beauty, innocence and hope before stamping them out in a play that for all its reflection of the inarticulate in our society is eloquence personified in showing the social waste of dysfunctional families who’ve slipped through the net.

Ned Bennett, director of the also recently acclaimed Pomona has, curiously, edited Jordan’s original text, cutting a whole scene regarding Maggie and her sense of `family’.

Nonetheless, overall, infinitely touching, Yen still emerges as a mournful, powerful and touching rebuke quite stunningly performed by its young cast.

© Richard Davenport. Annes Elwy (Jen), Jake Davies (Bobbie), Alex Austin (Hench)

© Richard Davenport. Annes Elwy (Jen), Jake Davies (Bobbie), Alex Austin (Hench)

Yen plays Upstairs at the Royal Court to Feb 13, 2016
Review first published for Reviewsgate, January 2016