Seventeen

Belvoir St Theatre, August 5

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sure, it could easily have been another song in the event but it’s quite a moment when the veteran cast of Seventeen dances to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Famously, it nearly didn’t happen. When rights to the song were denied at the last minute, director Anne-Louise Sarks took to Twitter. The campaign went viral with Swift tweeting her permission, gifting the production invaluable publicity.

Written by Matthew Whittet, Seventeen is a very sweet play. On the last day of high school, a small group of friends gather in the park to party the night away before they all go their separate ways and life changes forever. As they drink too much, dance and play truth and dare, anxieties, fears and secrets bubble to the surface.

It could be performed by young people but Whittet wrote it for 70-year olds, adding another level of poignancy to his examination of those uncertain years on the cusp of adulthood when you ponder who you are and what you hope to become.

And so we have a cast of esteemed older actors in the roles. There’s the loud, pushy ringleader Mike (John Gaden), his quieter, more sensitive best mate Tom (Peter Carroll) who is heading interstate to Melbourne University, Mike’s pretty, popular girlfriend Sue (Maggie Dence) and Sue’s brainy friend Edwina (Anna Volska) who rarely lets her hair down.

Joining them are the uninvited Ronny (Barry Otto), the weird, misfit kid that no-one likes, and Mike’s 14-year old sister Lizzy (played by the younger Genevieve Lemon) who won’t go home no matter how much they tell her to piss off.

The company spent time during rehearsals with some 17-year olds to get back in touch with a teenager’s energy, physicality and way of talking – and they all do a great job. Carroll and Gaden, in particular, climb the playground equipment and get their groove on with the ease and exuberance of people decades younger (movement by Scott Witt).

There are a few clunky moments as Whittet sends characters off stage to allow others to remain alone, which feel a bit engineered, but overall Sarks’ production is nicely staged on Robert Cousins’ playground set, with very clever costuming by Mel Page.

The performances are exceptional. After initial laughter at seeing septuagenarians larking around, saying “fucktard” and dancing to contemporary pop songs, we accept the convention as the actors draw us into the character’s emotional dilemmas.

There are lovely moments for all the characters, while Otto’s portrayal of the sad, alienated Ronny is heartbreaking.

The characters can’t believe how quickly their high school years have flown. Young people will doubtless relate to that, but Seventeen will probably speak loudest to people whose teenage years are long in the past and for whom the passing of time and sense of nostalgia will strike even more of a chord.

Whittet writes with love, tenderness and a gentle optimism. He doesn’t tell us what happens to the characters – which would arguably make for an even stronger play – but he leaves us hoping against hope that things will turn out well for all of them.

Seventeen runs until September 13. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 9

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Once in Royal David’s City

Belvoir St Theatre, February 12

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Michael Gow’s new play Once in Royal David’s City is full of big ideas yet intimate at the same time, a piece that plays with form, and throbs with love and anger.

Theatre director Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) is feeling somewhat adrift and in search of meaning after the death of his father (Anthony Phelan). Pulling out of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he plans to spend Christmas with his mother Jeannie (Helen Morse) at a friend’s beachside house.

When she suddenly collapses, Will dupes himself into believing that it’s not that serious. In fact, she is dying of pancreatic cancer. Faced with the awful truth, Will sits by her hospital bed talking to her.

Locating the play right from the start as taking place in a theatre, Will sometimes addresses the audience directly and introduces scenes in Brechtian fashion.

Through his interactions with an eclectic range of characters – a school teacher who wants him to lecture on Brecht, his mother’s best friend, a woman consumed by grief and a Bible-basher who both visit his mother in hospital, a teenage boy fleeing family arguments over the Christmas Dinner table – Gow takes on a host of weighty subjects: Brecht and political theatre, Marxism, rampant consumerism, capitalist exploitation, the power of church music, mortality, grief and love among them.

Eamon Flack directs a clean, clear, eloquent production on Nick Schlieper’s pristine, open set that makes the Belvoir stage look bigger than I’ve ever seen it. A circular, white curtain around the space covers quick scene changes, while the cast performs harmonised Christmas carols (music by Alan John).

Flack draws excellent performances from his impressive cast, which also includes Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Mackiewicz and Tara Morice.

Will is a huge role and Cowell pulls it off magnificently with a raw, compelling performance that captures Will’s pain and his rage at the world. Morse is radiant as Jeannie, seeming to fade into bird-like frailty before our eyes when illness hits.

I’m not sure that all the different elements of the play come together completely. A couple of scenes seem to add little, while Will’s final school lecture feels like an all-too-obvious device for Gow to vent without really shocking us into fresh insight – though he makes his points.

However, much of it is extremely moving (there is plenty of robust humour too), particularly the scenes between Cowell and Morse. The encounter between Will and the teenage skateboarder (Greenwood) is also unexpectedly poignant, while Phelan is terribly touching as an awkward, gentle godbotherer with a surprising insight into the gospels.

Once in Royal David’s City runs at Belvoir St until March 23. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16