Following a successful run at 2022’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Fanboy is the newest piece of work from actor and playwright Joe Sellman-Leava, with this wonderfully geeky 65 minute piece of theatre being inspired by his own life experiences as a fanboy, exploring complex but comedic relationships with past and future versions of himself in a fascinating narrative structure that’s full of life’s surprises. Telling an honest and open story that’s told in somewhat of an autobiographical manner, Joe allows for a heartwarming and often hilarious portrayal of his life–and the struggles of being a nerd in your 30’s.
What really grasped my attention within the way Fanboy is constructed is that it’s primarily written as a one-man piece; an aspect that I’ve only seen in one other instance of live theatre. Without the requirement of other actors on stage; Joe addresses the audience personally, telling his true and honest story as if he were recounting it to a group of friends; and by playing himself within the production this makes this narrative element all the more elevated as it feels truthful, real and sincere.
This is the first time the production has come to Theatre Royal Plymouth in The Drum and I’m extremely happy it’s made a stop here on its Spring tour as it was truly a piece that captured the essence of everything I love about pop culture and science fiction.
Fanboy follows Joe’s relationship with nerdiness; with this adapting over the years to match his personas–in his teens, he hid it. In his twenties, he owned it. Now in his thirties he’s still absolutely obsessed with Star Wars, David Attenborough and The Muppets: Christmas Carol; to which he makes countless references throughout; a journey of which I know many audience members resonated with, looking back across the years of niche interests. His initial childhood joy of dressing up as Superman, the teenage shame of these infatuations and the realisation in adulthood that it’s okay to embrace the things you love are all key themes throughout the narrative; with Joe donning a Superman t-shirt as part of his loungewear throughout the duration of the production.
To build upon these pop culture references; the show even opens with an introduction to the fanboy ‘species’ as Joe captures the characterisation of David Attenborough; the first of several laugh out loud impression moments from this talented performer and writer. The specimen being presented to us of course is Joe, as he introduces us to a recreation of his childhood bedroom cluttered with vintage box sets, video games and most importantly a VHS tape and television gifted to him by his Uncle Obi, with these pieces of the set becoming vital to Joe’s reflection on his childhood.
Playing himself, Joe Sellman-Leava is phenomenal. Tracing his journey from his first ever midnight showing of The Phantom Menace, to exploring the darker side of the online nerd culture; Joe is a truly gifted actor who brings his real experiences to a self-aware piece of narrative theatre that’s forever breaking the 4th wall as he’s openly aware he’s presenting his story to an audience, expressing that “I haven’t been around this many people in a while!” when presenting himself to The Drum’s audience for the first time. The show spans events that have happened to us all, the 2016 global uncertainty of Trump taking office, all his favourite celebrities such as Prince and Carrie Fisher dying and the world seemingly burning around him as he’s wondering what bleak things may plague his future. His inner emotions are now a striking contrast to the joy, hope and wonderment of his younger self.
However, through the piece of technology he holds closest to his heart–the TV gifted to him by Uncle Obi; he’s able to interact with this version of himself; brought to life through an old birthday party VHS where he’s full of ambition and pure joy, with the comically adorable Ethan El-Shater taking the helm as young Joe. This technique brings in one of the most impeccably timed performances between a live actor and a pre-recorded video that’s clearly been precisely cued and timed, supported by the work of technical designer Dylan Howells, who Joe engages in conversation with several times; clearly baffled by the fact that he’s able to talk to his younger self whilst remaining to directly address the audience who’s completely immersed in this feat of technology that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Throughout this glorious production, we discover the intricate intertwined relationships Joe has with the vital people in his life; the initial excitement and then eventual downfall with his best friend Wayne, his first romantic relationship with Gaya and the exuberance he feels with Uncle Obi, all of which are told solo by Joe; in an emotional whirlwind that gets you truly invested into this narrative. It’s an extremely truthful piece that combines a sense of nostalgia with acceptance of current circumstances and the fear of the unknown; told by a shadowy, robed figure of Joe in his 50’s who’s full of bitterness towards his past selves.
The quality of scriptwriting from Joe Sellman-Leava is truly impeccable; amalgamating an uplifting true to life narrative with countless nods to pieces of pop culture; featuring but not limited to: Star Wars, The Muppets, the Marvel franchise, Nintendo and That Mitchell & Webb Look; with Joe being able to pull off flawless impressions of characters skits, and iconic lines that truly presents Joe’s true adoration of being a fanboy. As a fangirl of many pieces of pop culture myself; this was definitely a narrative structure I enjoyed, with plentiful nods and easter eggs being hidden throughout Joe’s complex dialogue that was truly a joy to behold. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with some of the source material–Joe’s TV also doubles up as a visual piece of storytelling in order to display game and movie clips, meaning you’re always aware of the countless references, especially within Joe’s ongoing obsession with Star Wars.
For those of us like myself with our own niche and geeky interests, this is a show that’s truly not to be missed during its limited run at The Drum between March 2nd-4th, and Fanboy’s upcoming tour this Spring. Despite its key roots in pop culture and Joe’s admiration for all things in nerd culture, at its roots; this is a show that’s about finding your people and what it means to be a part of something bigger than we could ever imagine. If you’re looking to reflect with a sense of childhood nostalgia; this is definitely the show for you. Joe Sellman-Leava’s Fanboy takes an exceptionally touching look at the way we hold onto childhood passions and grow as individuals in an emotionally moving piece of devised theatre that’s truly innovative, incredible and inspiring, brimmed with surprises.
Fanboy will be touring this Spring, beginning at the VAULT festival in London from March 7th-12th, before making stops in Settle, Norwich, Harrogate & Hull for a strictly limited run.