The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyric Hammersmith Autumn 2009; Autumn 2010, and tour
In Simon Stephens' new play a group of seventeen-year-olds in an expensive provincial grammar school prepare for their exams and their Oxbridge applications, and slowly go mad.
The smartest girl is convinced her mother will kill her if she gets anything lower than an A, the sexiest girl is a self-harmer.
The handsome guy compensates for his insecurities by viciously bullying the others, his most hapless victim comforts himself with apocalyptic visions, and the mildly nerdy kid is on the edge of schizophrenia.
Clearly Stephens has chosen these relatively privileged kids deliberately, to make the point that, while they may have different troubles from other teenagers, adolescence is barely survivable for anyone.
And so his reassurance (put in the mouth of one of the kids in an awkwardly speaking-for-the-author moment) that '99% of the young people in this country are all right' and will make it through to successful adulthood feels a bit like whistling in the dark.
For about three-quarters of the play (just under two hours, with no interval) Stephens is completely successful, making the kids alive and (except for the bully) likeable, so that you believe in them and hope that their pains will be no more than adolescent rites of passage.
And then he has the plot take a turn that, while being totally believable, can't help feeling a bit too easy a way out, saving him and us from having to work out how these kids are going to navigate their way through their problems.
The play becomes simultaneously darker and, paradoxically, more trivial and easy to dismiss, and I am sure that is not the effect Stephens would want.
For their success in creating and sustaining the reality of the characters, all credit to director Sarah Frankcom and her cast, particularly Tom Sturridge as the likeable lad teetering on the edge of real insanity, Jessica Raine as the attractive newcomer, and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as the bully.
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