Frankie Fox is Liam in Boy at the Almeida Theatre. Photograph: Kwame Lestrade
Frankie Fox is Liam (left with bag) in Boy at the Almeida Theatre. Photograph: Kwame Lestrade

Cut-outs of Billy Elliot, the working class boy who defies the odds to fulfil his dancing dreams dangle tauntingly above the Almeida stage during Leo Butler’s haunting new play.

Below, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether bring to life the mean streets of London in a way that calls foul the Billy Elliot myth of social mobility.

The stage is a slow-moving circular conveyor belt, filled at the start by the huge cast of mostly unknown actors. School children wait at the bus stop, a man talks loudly on his phone, and random snatches of dialogue overlap to give a sense of the urban melee.

As actors hop off the conveyor belt to reappear later on as different characters, one face in the crowd remains. Liam (newcomer Frankie Fox) is 17, has dropped out of education and faces an uncertain future.

Without money, qualifications or a supportive family, Liam is ill-equipped for life in austerity-era London. “You don’t know much, Steven,” says his friend’s mother, getting his name wrong. Fox is excellent as Liam, his eyes sunken, his body language uncertain and apologetic, his speech confused.

We follow Liam for a day as he trudges through the streets of London in his grey tracksuit and plastic rucksack. On the trail of a friend, Liam’s odyssey across London is fruitless from the start. He gets in trouble for not having a ticket on the tube, and one particularly grim moment sees him down and out, eating fried chicken in the cubicle of a public toilet.

Reaching Oxford Street, giant letters spelling out the name of the sportswear chain Sports Direct fill the stage. It’s a nightmare vision of consumerist Britain, and Liam lacks the tools to cope with any of it, as he struggles to articulate his sense of alienation from mainstream society.

With a roll call of bit-part characters, Boy is a somewhat disjointed play but the production by Miriam Buether and Sacha Wares raises it to the level of brilliant drama. Their perpetually looping stage brings to life a bleak vision of London, featuring everything from Oyster barriers to self-service checkouts.

Following Alecky Blythe’s Little Revolution and Re: Home by Cressida Brown, Boy is the latest play to focus on growing levels of inequality in the capital. But what makes Boy the most disturbing of the bunch is that is it neither blames nor offers redemption.

Boy is at the Almeida Theatre, N1 1TA until 28 May.

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