By Adam Rafferty
The last day of secondary school is a seminal moment that marks the point at which, for many, pivotal decisions are made that will have a heavy influence on the rest of our lives. Yet, at an age of seventeen, the proto-adults most of us are at that time have barely the capacity to keep ourselves alive independently, let alone be ready to know how we want to steer ourselves into the future.
Of course, by the time we reach our sixties or seventies, with decades of life experience under our belts, we tend to very much know what it is we want to do with our lives, even though the future may look just as uncertain in an equal and opposite way.
Australian playwright Matthew Whittet’s Seventeen gifts a cast of renowned senior actors the opportunity to relive their youth, while gently encouraging the audience to reminisce on their own teenage experience.
The story, set in a playground complete with the requisite swings, slide, seesaw and jungle gym – all cushioned by the ubiquitous Aussie bark chips – begins as five Year 12 kids count down the moments to the end of their secondary schooling. There’s the raucous Mike (Richard Piper) who’s keen to get pissed as quickly as possible with his best mate Tom (Robert Menzies), who’s more reserved in his revelry, due in no small part to the fact he’s moving imminently to Adelaide with his family. There’s Mike’s girlfriend Jess (Pamela Rabe) whose playful manner belies her fears for what her future will look like, and her best friend, the bright and more straitlaced Emilia (Genevieve Picot), whose nervous tendencies manifest in nose bleeds. Emilia is hiding undeclared feelings for Tom that are quickly running out of time to be acted upon.
The odd man out of the group is Ronny (George Shevtsov). Only three other kids from their year have signed his school shirt and while the other four kids don’t ostracise him, they don’t really see him as part of their ‘gang’ either. But Ronny’s hiding a secret from all of them that means they’re actually hanging out on his turf at the moment. Finally, there’s cute and rambunctious Lizzy (Fiona Choi), Mike’s little sister who has forced her way into their celebrations.
Over the course of an evening in the park, secrets are unveiled, confidences are made and broken, while skeletons fall out of closets, all before the sun rises and the metaphorical dawn of their adult lives comes to push them into the future.
Whittet’s play – inspired by a conversation with a senior performer in whom he could still see the youthful spark – is a boon for older performers who rarely, if ever, in this stage of their careers get to play roles with this kind of innocence and abandon any more. The juxtaposition of having actors over the age of sixty playing kids of seventeen brings depth to the story that if it were cast correctly for age would otherwise have been a mundane take on the teenage experience. A peer for HBO’s Euphoria, or Netflix’s new iteration of Heartbreak High, this is not.
Despite Matt Edgerton’s strong direction, the action and plot twists that give this story its texture are pretty pedestrian by the standards of today’s ‘coming of age’ storytelling. But by having much older actors in the roles, the stakes are somewhat changed, and it becomes less a story of teenage angst and rather a story of nostalgia and the significance of ‘big’ life moments in the grand scheme of our personal life tapestries. The impact of this story is mostly to be determined by the audience and their own reflection and introspection on these aspects, rather than the dramas played out amongst the ‘teens’.
The wealth of acting experience on stage delivers the superior quality of performance you would expect, and while some of the cast find it a little difficult to hide the ageing affects of their weary bones, the likes of Rabe and Shevstov particularly embody their teenage selves with convincing physicality, thanks no doubt to Movement Director Vincent Crowley. But the star of the show in age transformation has to be Fiona Choi, who flies and hangs and swings and climbs all over the set like a woman half her age, all while delivering a charming performance as the little sister who knows her brother better than he cares to admit.
While this is a story everyone over the age of seventeen could appreciate, it will be admired most by those who are themselves beginning to watch life’s sunset, rather than the ‘stay out all night and watch the sun rise’ crowd.
Image: Pia Johnson