It’s not often you can relive your childhood – and a lot of us wouldn’t want to – but Michael Whittet’s quirky, moving and revelatory play, Seventeen, allows a cast of stage veterans to turn the clock back.
It’s the last day of school. Do you remember? The anarchy, the celebrating, signing your name on friends’ shirts, that jubilation, that realisation that finally…finally, to quote Alice Cooper, school’s out for ever.
But with that new found freedom comes fear and uncertainty. It’s a big world out there and you’re just 17. No longer a big fish in a little pond but a tiny minnow struggling to find space in an awfully big pond.
Seventeen, which premiered in Australia, has now opened at the Lyric Hammersmith starring a group of six OAPs – the three men all in their 70s and two of the women not far behind – who get to be teenagers again.
And, without sounding patronising, their loutish, drunken, behaviour would probably be an anathema to today’s mature school-leavers. Now, our 13-year-olds? Well, that would be a different story.
However, we can all recognise the types. The gobby pack leader who thinks he knows it all and the girl who follows in his wake; the studious, plain, quiet achiever; the introverted and introspective best mate and, lastly, the stinky loner that no-one wants as a friend.
What Whittet has to say about this rite of passage is interesting and well observed. It’s just that director Anne-Louise Sarks makes such a meal of it.
The cavernous Lyric stage is under-used for the production. The set comprises of a giant set of swings and a climbing frame. The rest of the space is dark, echoey, and vacant. The cast frequently disappear off stage, leaving a wilderness behind them.
The drama is only 80 minutes long but another ten could be cut from the running time by simply picking up the pace. There’s almost no atmosphere created by a thin plot, which could be told in 15 minutes.
The gang of friends, plus gobby’s little sister, meet at their favourite haunt, the play area of their local park, where, over copious amounts of booze, confidences are exchanged, drunken kisses given, and secrets finally revealed.
I’m full of admiration for 70-year-old Michael Feast as the foul-mouthed leader, Mike, a drunken and abusive yob. He frequently rips open another can of beer and then finds the boundless energy to pogo across the stage, dancing like..well, like a 17-year-old.
The only thing he wants to do is get smashed and not think about the future.
His girlfriend, the equally blasphemous Jess (Diana Hardcastle who, while probably in her mid 60s, proves adept at pole dancing), finds herself at a crossroads in her life.
She wants to go to university with her best friend, the bookish Amelia (Margot Leicester), but her alcoholic mother is making demands. What can she do?
Meanwhile Mike’s mate, Tom (Roger Sloman) harbours a secret every bit as devastating as Ronnie’s. Ronnie is Johnny-no-mates, the boy everyone avoids. He’s the outsider who hangs back in the shadows hoping for a moment’s acceptance.
The night eventually erupts into violence and the close bond of this mismatched group teeters on the brink of being shattered forever.
The casting of a group of seasoned actors to play teenagers is a gimmick but one which works. The elderly, staring at the fag end of their lives, face similar fears about what the future may hold for them, whether friendships will last, the loneliness and uncertainty.
But, ultimately, this brief, but interesting play, only comes to life at the very end when a profoundly sad speech by Mike Grady’s Ronnie will break your heart.
Seventeen plays at the Lyric Hammersmith until April 8.
Kids again. Matthew Whittet’s brief but interesting play, Seventeen, is well observed but sluggishly directed at the Lyric Hammersmith.