The National Youth Theatre is getting on quite a bit. With 60 years under its belt, the company has 35 years on its oldest member – so what better time than the present to contemplate ageing, death and the uncontrollable speed of life? James Fritz’s triptych for young people leaves plenty of room for expression and individually, and is so luxuriously self-aware as it delivers a youthful interpretation of age through a filter made up from stereotypical understandings of youth. Naturally, One Direction’s Live While We’re Young is its theme song.
With sparse character details and minimal stage directions, Fritz leaves it up to his actors to make a point. Chris Hone has taken this neutrality on board, with a monochrome costume design that entrusts the themes and performances with bringing the colour. There’s something achingly contemporary about the grey sweatshirts and joggers – a clean, sophisticated colour palette that breeds a more intensive focus on the words said. Hone has borrowed enough from a sports aesthetic to bring a definite energy to the work – but the greyscale design also evokes something more primal, providing a unified, somewhat tribal platform from which our actors can spring.
Strength of body meets strength of mind in Fritz’s first piece, where LaTanya Peterkin’s GIRL dishes out some severe words to Oliver Clayton’s muscular BOY. Within minutes, Fritz’s stark, punchy dialogue brings the two actors to an elegantly charged scene, where BOY delivers push ups over GIRL’s body, but firmly under her control. There’s a true physicality to their exchange, played out under Matt Harrison’s space-efficient direction, that brings the illusion of distance into this small studio theatre. BOY is an optimistic romantic, transforming the walk-in bath of the house they break into to a jacuzzi – but all of his efforts to impress in the sheets (and shrubs!) are quickly deflated by GIRL’s sense of perspective and history: “Whatever dirty thing we’ve just done, has almost certainly been done by my grandparents as well.” The methods each character uses to make an impact may be different, but our actors are equally matched – and Peterkin and Clayton bring a vibrancy to this couple’s quest to gain ownership of the intercourse that brought them into being.
What the first segment does to space, the second does to time. After another rousing chorus of Live While We’re Young, we meet ONE and TWO – who storm through their relationship in less time than it takes a picture of a topless Harry Styles to reach the Daily Mail’s homepage. With a pulsing urgency, Katya Morrison and James Morley present a life in fast forward. ONE and TWO are an ordinary couple, running through ordinary rites of passage as they complete the ordinary task of changing the bedding. It’s a perfect reminder to seize the moment and, though it bears a sinister climax, brings as much horror into its vision of a life without reflection. Morrison is a joy to watch as she equips her character’s race through life with a certain wistfulness. As the piece draws to its ending, with damp eyes and a frantic energy, she delivers an explanation of her actions, with a voice so lyrical and rich, crystal-clear and elegantly accented.
Morrison returns in the third part, as the liaison officer at what is gently inferred to be a pre-euthanasia care home. “G-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-d” she trills, absently, as she goes about her business of facilitating the mysterious procedures. There’s something of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster here, as residents come to terms with a selfless action in a dystopian medical centre, and under Seth Rook Williams’ interrogative lighting design, which eventually burns out into resigned candlelight hues, our four patients use Fritz’s fragmented text as a springboard from which to showcase their versatility and humour. But the real clout of this piece lies in its gender-blind character list. For this staging, director Matt Harrison has chosen to cast Matilda Doran-Cobham and Hannah Farnhill as the central couple. The lovers are subject to venomous cries of “you’re disgusting” from a roommate who is flamboyantly affronted by “people like [them]”. Tonight, the flatmate’s words seem homophobic, but next time, under a different casting, they could just as easily seep into another vein of prejudice. Fritz reminds us that hatred can be arbitrary, and the reasons behind it unscripted; here, the target-less insults form a trap, within which we can capture and abandon our own prejudices.
And all of this in 60 minutes? Just imagine what this theatre can do in its next 60 years.