Decades at the Ovalhouse
With Boy at the Almeida Leo Butler shone a grim light on what it is to be young in modern Britain. in Decades at the Ovalhouse Theatre the playwright broadens his scope, capturing 100 years of youthful struggle. Yet his new play sees Butler abandon the nuance of Boy in favour of a kaleidoscopic approach to history that fails to take on the weight of its various themes.
Taking in everything from racism, to 60s revolution, to the banality of online living, Butler’s effort certainly covers a lot of ground, his overlapping dialogue creating a thematic patchwork out of the thinly constructed narratives. However, instead of highlighting a universality of struggle across the ages, the history collision that provides the backbone of Decades only serves to trivialise those threads that are set from 1970 onwards.
Scenes of perpetually texting teens or pissed-up football supporters can’t carry the same heft as those of World War One or the repressed homesteads of 1950s Britain, giving the play a tonal whiplash that undermines the temporal resonances Butler is trying to create. It is somewhat hard to ascertain whether this effect is intentional or not, though the compassion Butler showed in Boy, with its haunting, lonely journey through present-day London, suggests that the problem lies in the structure of Decades rather than any spite in its message.
Trying to balance the tonal discrepancies of this structure also makes things far more difficult for the young cast, who are all cribbed from the BRIT School’s Bridge Theatre Company. Already their age means some scenes simply fail to connect, namely a poorly judged – if unavoidably harrowing – episode of infanticide and a pulpy story of wartime racism, so matters aren’t helped by Butler’s dialogue, which is more a collage of period detail than anything approaching actual speech.
It is a shame, as there are moments where Decades bares its teeth to reveal something far sharper than its reference-laden time-hopping. Oddly, both instances occur in song. A cheery sing-a-long near the middle of the play slyly skews the nasty group mentality of ISIS, UKIP and the EDL, while a musical-style performance later in the narrative casts an eye on what it is like to live as an immigrant in a country that appears to want you out. Both numbers have a satiric sparkle that is sorely lacking elsewhere, providing a glimpse of the social commentary Butler delivered in abundance at the Almeida earlier in the year.
Photo: Richard Davenport
Decades is on at the Ovalhouse Theatre from 7th until 25th June 2016, for further information or to book visit here.