We don’t know the man’s first name but his surname is England and so was his father’s. At one point in his childhood, England the younger is drummed into helping his father do demolition work, tearing down buildings in London for scrap. His father deplores the ruin of the familiar but if it’s a living then join in, he says, and they call themselves England & Son.

Written by Ed Edwards, author of the 2018 play The Political History of Smack and Crack, England & Son is a collaboration with performer Mark Thomas and draws on first-hand experiences of violence, drugs and incarceration. It is bleak, darkly funny, grimly prophetic, and an almost clinical account of inter-generational male brutality and abuse.

Thomas is galvanising as England, the boy and young man, who grows up yearning for a father’s kindness, for someone to share a laugh and ruffle his hair. But such happiness is so scant and uncertain it is worse than none at all. The father, a soldier in the Malayan Emergency that lasted until 1960, comes back to his home country scarred by his own role in state-sanctioned atrocity, and incapable of adjusting to everyday life let alone his family.

The boy is a ward of the state from an early age. Boys’ homes, special military-style boot camps run by sadistic squaddies, hurled from pillar to post. In league with his only friend, Paul, he becomes a master thief, expert in the value of antiques and collectables, looting nearby country houses. Respite comes from a former social worker who knew him at age seven. She fosters him briefly but inevitably it goes awry.

Stringently directed by Cressida Brown, with boundless energy and unwavering focus, Thomas is terrifying and heartbreaking in his depiction of a young man’s ruin. We see the intelligence and wit of this boy England, his promise and broken spirit.

It is a fierce, sometimes sardonic, but relentless account of the structural cruelty and exclusion that drives the young to crime, the solace of drugs, and the doom of becoming their fathers.  England & Son is urgent theatre, as lucid as it is dreadful to countenance. But stare at it we must.

England & Son is playing at The Studio, Holden Street Theatres, from February 13 to March 17.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe coverage here on InReview.

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