Seventeen review (Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney)

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With a “Permission granted, @BelvoirSt” Taylor Swift became Australian theatre’s biggest news. When her pop mega-hit Shake it Off played during Seventeen’s opening night, the crowd cheered, clapped, and all but sang along. Swift had saved this moment for the audience by granting last-minute rights to the song, but along the way she probably also saved the box office for this lightly funny but middling play that never really rises above its own gimmick.
Seventeen is about the night after the end of high school for a group of teenagers – only these teenagers are played by actors in their 70s. There’s loose cannon Mike (John Gaden), his more grounded and sensitive best mate Tom (Peter Carroll), Mike’s hot girlfriend Sue (Maggie Dence), Sue’s bookish best friend Edwina (Anna Volska), and that kid they don’t like but can’t get rid of, Ronny (Barry Otto).
Mike and Tom have taken over the local park for a party. Tom, who is about to move to Melbourne, seems anxious. There’s something he wants to get off his chest. Mike just wants to get smashed, vomit, and then write his name with vomit. He also doesn’t want to hear Tom’s talk about how everything is going to change. Sue wants Edwina to get drunk, for once, and have fun, for once, and maybe see her pash someone. And Ronny just wants someone who isn’t a teacher to sign his school uniform shirt.
They party in that aimless “aren’t we so bad” way that only 17-year-olds really can – counting numbers of beers, playing truth or dare, embracing the endearingly immature immediacy of adolescent feelings. But for all their bravado, these are pretty good kids; they spend a bit of time shooing away Mike’s 14-year-old sister Lizzy (Genevieve Lemon) but it’s only perfunctory; they welcome her into the fun, and she’s a real bright spot in the show.
They turn up their speakers and they dance – yes, to Shake it Off, but to plenty of other infectious pop songs too, like Happy and Raise Your Glass; it quickly becomes clear that we didn’t need the Swift tune after all, that it would have been easily interchangeable and we never would have missed it. But now people are talking about Seventeen, so Belvoir’s publicity department has done its job and then some.
Playwright Matthew Whittet’s sweet spot is the sharp-sweet pain and excitement of transition into adolescence, adulthood, or some next-stage of autonomy. Seventeen, like his charmingly awkward play School Dance, is trying to capture that feeling of identity. How do we claim one as our own? How do we stand up to ourselves, for ourselves, when the people we’re fighting against are ourselves?
Whittet interviewed his troupe of actors about their own experience at the age of 17, but his characters are not based on their experiences. This is unfortunate because the characters overshoot archetypal figures and land squarely in the realm of stereotype instead. The dialogue is stilted, teen-movie style, and the plot would perhaps have had elements of freshness 15 years ago but feels stale now. There’s a plot twist that feels like every adolescent gay plot twist; a characters’ misdeeds are completely forgiven by all because of a magical, sudden, outing, and it’s so frustrating to see a work with an inventive premise that strives for poignancy fall into pat predictability.
The actors are remarkably good, of course – they are some of Australia’s best and most celebrated actors and they’re clearly enjoying the work and each other (and Otto creates a stellar misfit, constantly fidgeting with his shorts and backside)  – but it’s Genevieve Lemon in particular who elevates the show into something really wonderful. Whittet has captured her fourteen-going-on-twenty-five personality beautifully; there’s a pleasing and recognisable authenticity to the way Lemon inhabits this young teen with her bravado, smarts, and self-conscious hair fixing.
Every line in Seventeen about how fast things change – how quickly we grow up (or don’t), how we don’t know who we’re going to be or if we’ll be okay. Presumably, it’s supposed to resonate on a deeper level because the actors are older, and it all therefore hints at the constancy of change and the uncertainty around it, no matter which stage of life one is currently in, but those lovelier, smaller moments are overshadowed by laughter just because a septuagenarian said “fuck” or gyrated suggestively, or by a forced neat resolution.
It doesn’t feel exploitative, but there are moments where it feels cheap, and tired, like we’ve seen this narrative about growing up before, down to the timing of the dreaded drunk-vomit and an offstage call for help that interrupts a clandestine embrace, and director Anne-Louise Sarks can’t quite save those moments.
[box]Seventeen is at Belvior until September 13. Images by Brett Boardman[/box]
Related story:
Belvoir needs Taylor Swift’s persimmon to shake it off 

2 responses to “Seventeen review (Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney)

  1. Thanks Cassie. At least you have called out this gimmicky work for its weaknesses. I saw it tonight and it excited me about as much as watching oldies doing aquaerobics at my local pool.

    1. I saw Saturday afternoon’s matinee performance of Seventeen I am seventy, and have a sixteen year old daughter, for whom I am primary carer. I have kids just like those portrayed in the play in my house all the time. I thought the play was marvellous, and the acting superb, and so, from my observation, did the vast majority of the full house. I can only pity you two in your world weary cynicism.
      It is notable that Cassie’s review is the only 3 star of the ten or so published to date. All of the others are four or 4 1/2. Perhaps you two, Cassie and Jane are the ones who are right, but I am afraid you may be in a tiny minority, and I expect that most potential playgoers will ignore this particular gimmicky review.

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