Seventeen at the Lyric HammersmithCultureTheatre
Poignancy should be in Seventeen‘s marrow. The final day of school – with pensioners instead of pubescents – is a concept baked in bittersweet emotion. Yet rather than striking at the heart of this nostalgic present, Matthew Whittet’s play, imported to the Lyric through Australia’s Belvoir company, ends up wallowing in teen drama shallowness, eschewing the opportunity for something more sophisticated.
The characters are torn from a discarded Skins script. Mike (Michael Feast) is the belligerent leader about to be left behind, Jess (Diana Hardcastle) his girlfriend unsure how to avoid a stagnant future. Then there is Tom (Roger Sloman), best friend to the former, pining after the latter; Emilia (Margot Leicester) the posh, smart girl who can’t wait to get away; Ronnie (Mike Grady), the oddball who nobody likes; and Lizzie (Sarah Ball), Mike’s irritating little sister. That Whittet trades purely in archetypes is assumedly on purpose; that nothing new is said, one imagines, is not.
Most of what is good about the production stems from the performances. Though saddled with a script that thinks sounding young is just swearing a lot, the self-conscious over-eagerness this generates gradually settles as the play goes on, allowing the actors to inject some tenderness into the mania. Leicester and Hardcastle’s dynamic is especially sweet, with the former nabbing most of the night’s funniest lines.
And Tom Scutt’s set is truly gorgeous: a giant climbing frame is twisted into an infinity loop, sitting just in front of a towering set of swings. Both have the reddish hue of rust and twilight (or, indeed, dawn), bringing a note of melancholy largely lacking in Whittet’s script. Director Anne-Louise Sarks has the actors constantly doubling back through this purgatorial playground, making it feel as if they are ever reenacting past events.
There are indeed flickers of what Seventeen could have been. Tom’s dream of his older self, beautifully delivered by Sloman, is hauntingly prophetic, and there is a very touching scene towards the end where Ronnie’s self-hatred spills out. It’s just that while Whittet has come up with a novel idea for a production, he has forgotten to write a compelling narrative to match. Take away the old people as young people gimmick and all that is left is a generic distillation of the teenage experience.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Seventeen is on at the Lyric Hammersmith from 14th March until 8th April 2017. Book your tickets here.