The late 1950s, the dawn of the teenager; this is the setting for Absolute Beginners. The nation's youth is beginning to find its voice and exercise its right to free speech, values are changing, tensions are high. Opportunities are there, but you have to find the right one. Matthew Amer attended the press night of this new collaborative production at the Lyric Hammersmith.
London, a sprawling metropolis of high rises and basement bars. The first thing that strikes the audience about this production is Lizzie Clachan's multi-level design. Like huge magical building blocks, Clachan's set moves around the stage and reveals hidden secrets, creating skylines that are a constant reminder of the size of the city. Mostly monochrome, but with a splash of colour, it signals the change of eras.
At the centre of the action is the unnamed Photo Boy, charismatically played by Sid Mitchell. As his name suggests, he is obsessed with taking pictures and rarely seen without his camera. He doesn't want to be a tax payer, or 'citizen' as they are referred to; his, like, many of his contemporaries, is a free thinking way of life.
Though Photo Boy is the consummate idealist, reality invades his world. His girlfriend sleeps around and won't settle down until he has money, his father is ignored by his mother, there is tension between generations, classes and races. In 2007, to hear vehemently racist chanting and casual use of the word 'spade' is both shocking and chilling.
The tension builds to rioting, when the touch of director Liam Steel can be clearly seen. Previously a key member of physical theatre company DV8 and now director of Stan Wont Dance, Steel has created a sequence using sound, projection, physicality and Clachan’s shifting set to give life to the vicious terror of the fighting.
Roy Williams, who has adapted the play from Colin MacInnes's novel, has captured a rhythm of speech and a sense of youth that keeps the dialogue vibrant and tuneful to the ear, while Mitchell's central performance is supported by an ensemble cast including Tom Stuart as the wonderfully camp and devastatingly direct Hoplite, and Micah Balfour as Mr Cool, who generally lives up to his name, giving a huge impact when his exterior wall crumbles.
Absolute Beginners plays at the Lyric Hammersmith until 26 May.