Young at heart: Belvoir’s Seventeen

We’ve seen it before – actors playing children and/or characters much younger than themselves – in plays like David Holman’s The Small Poppies, and more recently in Matthew Whittet’s School Dance and Girl, Asleep. In fact, a lot of Whittet’s work draws on this conceit, something he readily acknowledges in his writer’s note in this show’s program. But in Seventeen, it feels like it has gone one step too far, that the joke has been over-extended and stretched out to fill ninety-minutes’ worth of theatre.

Playing in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre, the corner stage is covered in soft-fall rubber, and littered with metal playground equipment – swings, a slide, a climbing frame, a roundabout – and for perhaps the first time in the five years I’ve been seeing shows at Belvoir, the set (designed by Robert Cousins) actually feels too small for space. But I don’t think a bigger space would necessarily make the production better. Whittet’s conceit is simple: a bunch of Australia’s theatrical elders playing a group of seventeen year olds on their last day of school, their whole lives stretching out in front of them. It should be funny, watching these actors play “a group of teenagers (!) drinking, singing, dancing, gabbling, worrying and maybe even pashing (!!) their way through their last night of childhood and their first night of adulthood.” But instead, a lot of the beginning and middle of the play feels forced, like it’s trying too hard to be funny, deliberately asking the actors to do things which will get a laugh from the audience, before it finds the emotional heart of the play towards the end and ends on a kind of grace-note, one I don’t think the production truly earns.
Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, the production floats along on the spirit of its own joke, the conceit propelling it safely onto the space from the play’s opening moment, but it flounders, left to its own devices in the middle of a park in the middle of a summer’s night, much like the teenagers in the play. Whittet’s language – peppered with mild swearing like you would expect to hear bandied around the school-yard – finds loops and patterns, stock responses and beats which it dwells in a little too much, and the characters don’t really grow until rather late in the piece. Mel Page’s costumes are a curious concoction in themselves – they seem at once ill-fitting and out-of-place, because they are not being worn by seventeen-year-olds; yet they also feel too old, in that the seventeen-year-old characters perhaps wouldn’t wear these clothes, or maybe not entirely like this. Paul Jackson’s lighting is subtle yet effective in creating mood and conveying time, and the final moments are beautiful. Alan John’s compositions and Nate Edmondson’s sound design create a naturalistic world for the production, from the popular tunes played on the speakers, to the sounds of suburbia at night.
The actors, while as strong as they always are, seem to be playing stereotypes rather than characters; for some of Whittet’s other work, this might be part of the conceit itself, but here I think it works against what he and Sarks et al are trying to do. And while I don’t think it’s the actors who are responsible for this, the development of these characters as characters – the catalyst in their journey of growth – comes much too late to make us care terribly much about them. John Gaden’s Mike is rude and arrogant, though we later learn (and much too late, I feel) it is because he is scared of what will happen next; he is not ready for school to finish. Peter Carroll’s Tom is the quiet one, the compassionate one, with a heart of gold, even if he says and/or does the wrong things sometimes. Maggie Dence’s Sue is the ‘cool’ girl, but there’s not much else to her than this, even considering what passes between her, Tom, and Mike. Genevieve Lemon’s Lizzy (Mike’s fourteen year old sister) is a bundle of energy, always threatening to tell their parents about things that happen, but really she’s there keeping an eye on Mike, making sure he doesn’t do anything truly stupid. Barry Otto’s Ronny is the school loner, the boy no one wants to hang around with, and even though his characterisation is erratic, there is a lovely moment of change – or the potential for change – late in the play which makes him more three-dimensional than most of the others. Anna Volska’s Edwina is the quiet girl, the one who doesn’t share secrets lightly, who will slowly let them eat her up; the girl who isn’t used to drinking all that much. But it is her scene late in the play with Otto’s Ronny that I think is one of the most mature and accomplished pieces of writing in this play, perhaps even on this stage this year; there’s a fierce compassion and sense of genuine care which is hard to fake, which actually needs to come from a quite genuine place in the story and/or characters’ journey for it to work.
There are questions here in the fabric of the play which go unchecked or unexplored, such as: what is the relationship between Mike and Tom; is it as innocent as it seems? Is there something beneath their distaste for Ronny, or is it because he’s the odd-one-out? What sort of relationship do Edwina and Sue have; why are they friends? Why is Lizzie really present; what is the past between her and Mike (her older brother) that necessitates her presence in the story; would a fourteen-year-old really be hanging out with a group of seventeen-year-olds if they’ve taken such care to misdirect their parents’ attention? What happens to Edwina’s crush on Tom that is only briefly mentioned twice? I think if some of these questions were answered, and less time spent on the seemingly-gratuitous dancing, drinking, and swearing, then Whittet’s play would be much stronger and more poignant.

I realise, being not yet ten years from seventeen myself, that there are things you can’t even think of putting into words – much less things you can dream of doing – when you’re seventeen (or indeed at any age), so I recognise that some of these questions may not be able to be answered adequately in the play’s scope. But it feels like there are missed opportunities here, opportunities which would make Seventeen better, stronger, more bittersweet. The play’s ending, when it comes, is a simple gesture: Maggie Dence and Peter Carroll on the swings, swinging into the space at the lip of the stage. It is a beautiful and pure moment, something you can’t fake, as you see the pure enjoyment on their faces, the delight in doing something you might not have done for years. The light of the new day grows around them, and they grin – into the bigness of the day, into the bigness of the future.

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