BWW Review: SEVENTEEN, Lyric Hammersmith
In the casting of actors aged 70 or so to play characters aged 17 or so, Seventeen has echoes of Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills. In its raucous evocation of schoolkids suddenly set free, it prompts memories of Willy Russell's Our Day Out. And in its sweary, coarse humour, leavened with superego-free cruelty - the offence almost never taken, of course - there's plenty of Season One Inbetweeners too. That's a heady mix of antecedents, but Matthew Whittet's 90 minutes all-through play can't quite reach those levels of bittersweet poignancy or, as the young people say, LOLs either.
Mike (Michael Feast) is all aggression, testosterone and booze on the evening of the last day of school when he meets best mate, Tom (Roger Sloman), whose leaving town in a couple of days has heightened his sense of having to be grown-up at last. Jess (Diana Hardcastle) is Mike's girlfriend, but she's worried about whether that relationship is going anywhere and about her alcoholic mother. Her best friend Emilia (Margot Leicester) has the orthodox ambitions of a middle class girl (university, career etc) and can't understand why her bright BFF, all sexy confidence with the boys, doesn't share them, appearing suddenly unsure about life. Ronnie (Mike Grady) is the loser who always hangs around cool(ish) kids like these and Lizzie (Sarah Ball) Mike's little sister, is oversharingly keen to join the gang.
And there is the first problem with the play - each character is pretty much a stereotype we've all seen before, lending the narrative a soap-operaish predictability. I waited for a little more jeopardy to be introduced - surely someone was going to ditch the booze and reach for the MDMA without sufficient water to hand (cliched though even that would be), but no. The tug of love between Mike and Tom had been signalled from the start, so was hardly a surprise when it came and girls falling out over boys - well, who knew?
I was unconvinced by the dialogue too, some of it simply too sophisticated for kids (at least, the kids we were shown) to speak, even in vino veritas. Catharsis can unlock feelings, but events moved astonishingly quickly over the space of one night - perhaps a reunion a year later would have made for a structure better able to contain the plot's ambitious reach while still contained within a reasonable running time?
The cast save the show and make it worth the ticket price - especially if you're a drama student, because there's a masterclass or two on show. Michael Feast channels Steven Berkoff for his bulging vein in neck alpha male who hides his insecurity behind yobbishness. Roger Sloman (an actor I have admired since Nuts In May 41 years ago) plays out a lovely shy romance with Diana Hardcastle, whose pole-dancing pantomime is a highlight. Margot Leicester and Mike Grady share a beautifully acted, if all-too-familiar scene as two people who need find each other and Sarah Ball is splendid, all physical gawkishness and cloth-eared conversation as precocious 14 year old Lizzie.
This review is coming out a little more angry than I expected, but I think it's because this production, that started life in Belvoir, Sydney, is a rare example of a comedy that is set amongst contemporary working class kids with its bold casting taking away that inevitable sense of drama school poise that often detracts from other productions' attempts at authenticity. What annoys me is that such boldness is set in service of a lacklustre script that simply does not give enough to the talent on stage to express the full potential of the characters' lives. A sequel (Twenty-Four?) would be interesting and might say some of the things left unexplored in Seventeen.