The playground is a battlefield. Max and his best mate, Stevie, know that more than most. They’re the boys ducking punches and running from bullies, the boys who try to talk tough but feel scared. And for the hour we spend with them in Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s new play, they’re the boys hiding out in the school loos, waiting for Max’s imminent fight – his square go – with resident tough guy Danny.
Hurley, McNair and director Finn den Hertog gleefully play with the theatricality of the wrestling ring and the high drama of the schoolyard. There’s no pretending, not even for a minute, that this isn’t all happening in front of an audience. As Max and Stevie, Scott Fletcher and Gavin Jon Wright get us cheering in their corners, chanting their names as they square off against the bullies and each other. Punches – real and metaphorical – are underlined by the thud of Frightened Rabbit’s soundtrack and the sharp jabs of Peter Small’s lighting, creating a mini spectacle in the intimate surroundings of the Roundabout theatre.
As entertainment, it’s irresistible. Hurley and McNair mine a deep vein of humour in the classroom and playground, picking at the quirks and insecurities of male adolescence. The laughs are almost as loud as the cheers as Max and Stevie induct us into their world of terrifying bullies, eccentric physics teachers and old VHS tapes of wrestlers. Capturing the swagger and self-doubt of puberty, Fletcher and Wright are immensely likable performers, winning us over to their side from the start.
This, though, is more than a light-hearted romp through schoolboy rivalries. Playground scraps might seem like small fry, but it’s in the school and the park that violence is scratched into the skin of boys and young men. Beneath the banter, Square Go exposes the toxicity of macho posturing, revealing conventional masculinity as the sham it really is. Max and Stevie are caught in a centuries old trap, recycling tired and damaging images of manliness. But there is a suggestion that maybe – just maybe – it’s possible to break free.