In a flurry of awkward, awful, and euphoric moments, Leo Butler’s new play perfectly recaptures the feeling of being a teenager. Giving glimpses into the lives of young people from every generation between 1916 and the present day, it is frenetic, frantic and disjointed. Quite intentionally, it feels like the thought process of an ADHD sufferer, flicking channels, checking social media, and streaming music all at once. Admit it: you used to do that too.
It may be a case of style over substance, but appropriately the play’s flaws – it has too many ideas, it doesn’t know what it wants to be, it seems to go on forever – are the same criticisms you could level at your teenage years as a phase of life.
Decades is the result of a commission for the BRIT School’s Bridge Company, which exists to funnel its young performers into professional theatre. They could hardly have hoped for a more suitable text. The large, age-appropriate cast turn in uniformly fine performances, while the play’s hectic jumble of ideas provides them with ample opportunity to showcase a range of performance styles, songs, and a little physical comedy.
There are upbeat musical numbers about ISIS and human trafficking. Proceedings break savagely for a blacked-out flurry of noise representing September 11th, then snap back to business as usual. There’s a protracted segment fusing snatches of speeches by 20th century leaders into a dizzying diatribe – though a little more work on capturing the mannerisms and vocal qualities of those speakers would have made the section far more satisfying.
Although glimpses of plot do eventually appear, there is no overarching narrative, and little in the way of a cohesive theme. Instead, the audience is left to find their own meaning in the text, and fill in the gaps with their own experiences. The play provokes a sort of grubby nostalgia, as shameful as it is joyous, and relies – quite justifiably – on this effect for its impact. Strangely specific stories and retro references get laughs of recognition from different sections of the audience. The text if full of moments you will probably recall from your earlier years, like dancing with complete abandon in your bedroom, arguing with your best friends, or feverishly masturbating over Rick Astley while the theme music from Blankety Blank blares in the background.
The set, by Susannah Henry, consists of an impressive pile of wooden pallets and platforms, scattered with props and riddled with trapdoors. Eva Sampson’s full-tilt direction sees the cast crawling, dancing and sometimes summersaulting around the space like it’s an adventure playground.
Amongst them, Ashleigh Brown stands out with her utterly convincing depiction of unstable 90’s girl Emma – drunk, promiscuous and ecstatically spiralling out of control. Esme Seber, meanwhile, channels an equal-but-opposite energy as 1950’s housewife June, dreaming of Rock n’ Roll even as she is driven to self-harm and worse by the stifling confines of a loveless and inescapable marriage.
This kind of loneliness is one of the clearest themes to emerge from the all the chaos. It’s telling that our current decade is represented by an isolated insomniac, habitually Facebooking friends in other time zones. Racism rears its head on a number of occasions, too. Butler draws a clear line from the institutional bigotry of the Commonwealth, to the schoolyard bullying of Pakistani migrants in the 70s, right through to the contemporary xenophobia surrounding the refugee crisis.
Though the world may seem to be constantly changing, many things remain unalterable. Events will overtake you. Your life won’t be what you planned. Being a teenager will be a time of storm, stress, and hopefully some bliss.
Equally bewildering and engaging, this is an effective portrayal of the strangest time in life. It just might have benefitted from tying at least some of its many, many threads together.
Decades is on until 25th June 2016. Click here for more information.