Does anyone forget the feeling of being 17? Your whole life seems to stretch before you, a series of question marks and possibilities. The uncertainty can be overwhelming. You long for the self-assurance you think adulthood will bring. But aren’t we all, young and old, just making it up as we go along?
Matthew Whittet’s play Seventeen follows six teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. The kids have just finished their last day of school and, in the time-old tradition of British teenagers, head to their local park to get drunk. From dawn to dusk, they reminisce about the past, deal with drama in their present and worry about the future – all in the name of a last hurrah. Jess’s (Diana Hardcastle) confident exterior hides her troubled home life, whilst her best friend Emelia (Margot Leicester) is the good girl of the group, repressing her feelings for thoughtful Tom (Roger Solman) who is secretly in love with Jess. Meanwhile Jess is dating the brash Mike (Michael Feast), whose bravado masks his fear of the future. His younger sister Lizzie (Sarah Ball) is tagging along for the ride alongside class loner Ronny (Mike Gradie), who no one invited but is there nonetheless.
So far, so relatable. Whittet has created familiar, well-drawn teenagers in flux. But the real selling point is Seventeen’s twist: these empathetic characters are played not by bright young things getting their big break, but veteran stage actors in their seventies. Under Anne-Louise Sarks’ savvy direction, this cast of baby boomers are transformed into Generation Xers. They energetically sprint across the stage, giggling hysterically in that way only teenagers do. They twirl and cartwheel around the impressive set, which consists of giant swings and climbing frames. The over-sized park is designed by Tom Scutt to dwarf the actors, deftly representing their sense of teenage insignificance.
It is a testament to the skills of the performers that, after a initially jarring opening scene, the audience suspend disbelief. The cast overwhelmingly convince as young adults. Whittet’s idea is a clever conceit. The actors transform into seventeen-year-olds in front of our eyes, but their age brings a gravitas and a sense of perspective that only maturity can offer.
This effect is particularly apparent in a touching scene in which Solman’s Tom confesses his feelings for Jess. He tells her about a recent dream:
“I was old. In my dream I woke one morning and I’d become old. It was like my entire life had passed by in one night and I didn’t know what had happened.”
In Tom’s dream, the pair of them had grown old together. Coming from young actors, the lines would be charming, but spoken by an older man, they become imbued with regret, sadness and reflection.
It would be possible to interpret Seventeen as the recollections – the hazy dream – of an elderly Tom. The characters carry mobile phones, take selfies and play recent music, but there are no references to social media and ‘80s music is interspersed with the modern day hits. Whittet has ensured the play is deliberately timeless, allowing audiences of all ages to relate to his characters.
It’s not all perfect, the plot takes a while to warm up and the characters are more compelling in the second half, but Seventeen remains a hopeful, nostalgic love letter to adolescence, in all its complicated glory.
Seventeen is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until 8th April 2017. Click here for more details.