Theatre

Melbourne Theatre Company’s first show for the year, Seventeen, is charming in many ways. But is that enough? By Robert Reid.

MTC’s Seventeen is nostalgic fun. But is there deeper meaning?

A scene from the play Seventeen, where senior actors play adolescents just finishing high school.
A scene from the play Seventeen, where senior actors play adolescents just finishing high school.
Credit: Pia Johnson

On its face, Seventeen – Melbourne Theatre Company’s opening production for 2024 – is a cute idea. A Lyric Hammersmith and Belvoir collaboration, written by Sydney-based playwright and actor Matthew Whittet and directed by Matt Edgerton, Seventeen is the coming-of-age story of five teenagers on their last day of high school. It’s intended for senior performers – in this case, in their 60s and 70s.

The production puts some of Australia’s most respected and talented actors in the shoes of the 17-year-olds. The potential for interesting, poignant and emotional reflections on youth, senescence and the choices we make between the two seems baked into the premise. But as the play goes on and it becomes apparent both text and production remain firmly rooted in the characters’ adolescence, I find myself wondering: Why? Why are these teens being played by these – admittedly terrific – older actors? In a play full of secrets and revelations, it’s the one question that isn’t answered satisfactorily. Which is a shame, because the idea has promise.

Tom (Rob Menzies), Mike (Richard Piper), Jess (Pamela Rabe) and Emilia (Genevieve Picot) are best friends on the cusp of adulthood. With their last days of school behind them, they indulge in the annual ritual of graduating classes, getting drunk in a park and staying up all night to watch the sun rise with the comrades with whom they’ve battled through the six years of hellish social Darwinism that is high school.

Ronny (George Shevtsov) is one of the school’s outcasts – only three people sign his uniform, himself and two teachers. Socially awkward and struggling with domestic violence, Ronny has taken to sleeping in the park while he finishes exams, and he falls in with the main group of friends for this first – and final – night of freedom. Mike’s younger sister, Lizzy (Fiona Choi), also tags along with the group.

The story told here isn’t particularly original. As with any teenage soap opera, each character has their secrets, mostly about harbouring illicit romantic feelings. One by one these secrets tumble out in a series of ill-timed indiscretions. Mike, the gregarious and popular one, and Tom, the reserved and anxious one, have been best friends since primary school but Tom has long been secretly in love with Mike’s girlfriend, Jess. Mike, meanwhile, is relentlessly cheery and bullish in an attempt to mask a deep sadness, and his relationship with Jess has been cooling. Emilia, Jess’s best friend, has the same feelings for Tom.

These desires stagger drunkenly into the light when Tom confesses his feelings to Jess and they kiss, observed from the dark by Ronny, who blurts out the secret to Emilia, who races off to accuse Jess of stealing Tom and cheating on Mike. The romantic twists and turns of this night are perhaps as predictable as the sunrise at the end of the play.

“Why?” is often the least helpful question to ask of a production: it’s haunted by too many real-world decisions about programming, marketability, audience metrics and other, largely financial, considerations. “What does it do?”, on the other hand, tends to yield more illuminating answers. What would change if this play were performed by actors who match the age of the characters? Not much.

The casting, and Edgerton’s direction, creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. The actors don’t move like teens and the cadence of their banter is somewhat stilted and, at the outset, feels forced. The pure freshness of youth, the unconscious energy and easy definition of movement that youth possesses in all its unearned beauty and grace, are missing. There’s also a lightness in the actors’ voices that feels like they’re “playing young”, which admittedly drops away as the teen drama takes over and they can play the emotion rather than the age.

The production is layered with signifiers of youth. It’s set in a park playground – rendered and lit with haunting realism by Christina Smith and Paul Jackson respectively – which is the obvious place for this night to unfold. Schoolbags and mobile phones with plastic trinkets hanging off them are prominent early on, as if to remind us we’re watching teenagers. The slang and the music used throughout is slippery, as the time periods referred to are all slightly out of joint. The “youth speak” draws from several generations of idioms. They dance to Olivia Rodrigo’s 2023 song “bad idea right?” and later to The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” from 1996. I half expect one of the characters to refer to The Prodigy as classic rock.

This would be frustrating if the play were intended as a period piece, but the casting gives this indeterminant temporal anchoring a sense of years becoming blurred together, as in a memory.

In one moment the dissonance seems to clear briefly. When Tom confesses his feelings to Jess, he tells her about weird dreams that have haunted him for as long as he can remember. In the most recent, he wakes to find himself old and living in a house he doesn’t recognise. He only understands by inference that the pictures of children on his walls are his grandchildren. The dream ends with him finding Jess, aged like he is – which is how he confesses his secret love for his best friend’s girl.

In this moment the play seems to open a window into a world that is more real, where Tom might be recalling memories of his youth. I wonder if the rest of the play can be seen through this lens – the mistakes, regrets and lost dreams of youth seen nostalgically from a present dimmed with age, where the past seems so overwhelmingly present that it erases the years that have passed.

Instead this moment is glossed over, folding back into the narrative of the night to feed the juvenile betrayals and recriminations that will follow, and I wonder if I’m trying too hard to find deeper meaning in a play that is really just a provocation for nostalgia.

Under the humanity of the characters – the awkwardness, pain, confusion, wonder, bewilderment and terror of being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood – there are commonalities that we can surely all connect to in some way or another. But what else is here? The fleeting nature of youth? The long stretch of years between graduation and the grave, which lies like a wasteland before these kids? The echoes of who we were still present in who we are?

The conceit of this world makes it hard to find answers to these questions and I’m not convinced the play delivers any kind of meaningful resolution, which makes it feel gimmicky. Even so, the charm of the characters and the actors who play them gradually becomes irresistible. By the end I felt genuine affection for them. Seventeen might not take us anywhere very profound, but it gestures tantalisingly in the direction of profundity.

Seventeen is playing at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until February 17.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Unearned grace".

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