Kenneth Emson’s new play Plastic dives into the precarious and all-consuming age of adolescence. With an initially delicate touch, Emson captures how fraught with significance teenage experience can be, each day feeling as if it is weighted with the power to bend or shape the future forever.
Without judgment, but with precision of character, Emson unpacks the intense friendship of Jack and Ben (Louis Greatorex and Thomas Coombes) and their childhood friend Lisa (Madison Clare), amidst the short-sighted intensity of popularity, football, sex and drugs. Lisa is dating an older man Kev (Mark Weinman), whose schoolboy glory days as football hero have faded and who finds little fulfilment in rural Essex. It’s a nice contrast from Ben, who is mercilessly bullied by fellow students and teachers alike, but who manages to secure a stable and promising future.
Josh Roche’s intricate direction nicely complements Emson’s expressive writing. The narrative is told as a shared history from each character, and Emson writes in verse that – although it does occasionally grow tiring – manages to capture a poetry embedded in what feel like volatile lives. Roche zooms in on individual moments, creating a heightened and intensified atmosphere. Colour-shifting light bulbs on tracks are thrown forward and back, acting as an interrogative gleam on the stories the characters tell.
Although most of the action takes place on one day, Emson uses different temporal perspectives to position and contextualise the day’s significance. Roche allows scenes to play out almost like vignettes, left to linger as they seep into one another. One of the finest moments comes from Greatorex and Clare, who stand near each other as they go through the blinkings of their lives, forwards and back, with the lights shifting colour. The sequence both pays respect to the high pressure environment of adolescence while also contextualising it in a broader spectrum of existence.
But Emson drives the pivotal potential of teenage years to a rather needless extreme with a violent climax that definitively determines these characters’ lives. Admittedly it unearths the lack of support given to young people during this time, but Emson already shows this in more nuanced, evocative ways. And it falls into a problematic trope of representations of violence towards women without a full handle on, and exploration of, said violence. The climax is at best redundant, and hooks the characters into a sensational narrative that is less compelling and less convincing. It’s a frustrating shift that detracts from an otherwise crafted and detailed examination of growing up.