Review: Seventeen (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 1 – Sep 13, 2015
Playwright: Matthew Whittet
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Peter Carroll, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Genevieve Lemon, Barry Otto, Anna Volska
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is the last day of school, and five seventeen year-olds are celebrating the milestone with great happiness and too much booze. Performed by actors in their seventies, the play promises to offer refreshing perspectives of a rite of passage that most of us are familiar with. Matthew Whittet’s script for Seventeen explores teenage life at its later stages, when adolescents begin to think about the future, and the choices they inevitably have to make. The writing’s approach is a gentle one that shows a mainstream idea of youth that does not use its characters to shock or sensationalize. The group seems thoroughly regular, and it is worthwhile giving them a voice, without requiring them to be controversial or achieving anything particularly extraordinary or dramatic. Their concerns and interests are revealed with honesty, and the play derives its dynamism from the colourful optimism of its teenage personalities, but challenges exist in dealing with what is essentially quite pedestrian experiences. The text has enough vibrancy and surprises peppered through its plot, but if it is to be performed by age appropriate actors, one can imagine the work to lack a sense of theatricality, and come across too ordinary. If casting much older players is the only way the play gains its edge, it can be interpreted that the manoeuvre is somewhat gimmicky, but the production does manage to use the age discrepancy in fascinating ways at many points.

The comedic components of the show are effective and very memorable. Watching these seniors mimic the physical and verbal expressions of persons much younger is a joy, and we never tire of the immediate and awkward juxtaposition of behaviour against body, young against old. Director Anne-Louise Sarks introduces that humorous sense of contemporariness into much of the piece, and the cast executes them with triumphant results, no matter how juvenile or, at times, embarrassing. Less successful however, are the many scenes of quite serious conversations in the latter half, where its characters indulge in romantic squabbles, and the performances loses its ironic charm. The tone of the show turns earnest, and as it moves away from comedy, it simultaneously loses energy and tension, and the strong focus placed on puppy love shifts the production from a thoroughly amusing one, to something altogether less involving.

At the centre of Seventeen is a meditation on how we conceive of the future, at different stages of life. A particularly moving scene involves Tom declaring his feelings about leaving his town and his friends, at the conclusion of his high school education. Actor Peter Carroll performs the scene with outstanding sensitivity and intuition, communicating the duality of his character’s sadness, and the undeniable poignancy of an older man saying goodbye to the mortal world. Carroll’s power on stage comes not only from his ability to tug at our heartstrings but also from his amazing agility that defies our beliefs about ageing. Equally magnetic is Barry Otto as the kooky and childlike Ronny, a character on the periphery, unpopular but undefeated, always exuberant and full of kindness. The role needs better integration into the play’s main narratives, but his presence is a touch of innocent tenderness that provides a balance to the boisterous and libidinous goings on that gives cohesion to the stories. Genevieve Lemon plays the very cheeky and adorable fifteen year-old Lizzy with expert comic timing and a very pronounced stage presence. We welcome each of her entrances and anticipate every one of her hilarious punchlines.

Time may not always be linear, but in Seventeen, we are reminded that turning back the clock is impossible, and that the desire to do so, is misguided. The elderly are able to contribute so much to society that cannot be matched by the young. Of course, the reverse is also true, but wisdom that comes from age and experience cannot be replaced or surpassed. What we witness in the show are stories about the very immature of our communities, presented by a group with centuries worth of combined insight and intelligence. They do not say very much more than what is asked of them, but we are glad to have them in our midst, putting on display their talent and skill, all for our benefit.

www.belvoir.com.au