Matthew Whittet’s new play, Seventeen, is a story of teenage boozing, dreaming and bickering on the night after finishing the HSC. A group of 17-year-olds celebrate the end of childhood in the tried and true manner of downing cans of VB in a playground.
The recognisable, if clichéd, story of confused crushes, nostalgia and dreams for the future could be banal if it weren’t for Whittet’s approach of casting actors over the age of 70. Director Anne-Louise Sarks elicits the vitality of youth from the cast of Sydney theatre greats (Peter Carroll, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Barry Otto and Anna Volska), but her direction is otherwise staid.
For example, there was much fanfare when Taylor Swift announced via Twitter that Belvoir Theatre was permitted to play 'Shake It Off' in full, so it was a bit disappointing to discover that the song was used for much of the play. The cast have a bit of a jive and the audience laughs at old people dancing to pop music. The entertainment provided by a 70-year-old person saying ‘totes’, pole dancing or binge drinking is uncomfortable and interesting — in a culture that values youth so highly we’re confronted with quite a few moments of ‘laughing at’ the cast.
The age of the cast draws out an acute contrast between the characters’ aspirations and a future self; the actors are almost like premonitory ghosts hovering over the 17-year-old characters, which is very moving at times. When cool kid Mike (John Gaden) taunts Tom (Peter Carroll) by reading out a letter he had written to his future self at age 12, we’re immediately struck by how quickly life flies by, not only from 12 to 17, but from 17 to 70.
The only cast member under 70 is the inimitable Genevieve Lemon playing Mike’s younger sister Lizzy, a loud, annoying, intelligent brat. Lemon pulls off the balance between immaturity and concern for her older brother beautifully, even if she does show up the rest of the cast with her ability to wholly embody a 14-year-old.
The narrative of Seventeen is nothing special, with some especially clunky final plot twists that throw in homosexuality and homelessness from left field for some added 'spice', but the production is undeniably enjoyable and moving. Whittet has hit on a poignant contrast between the dreams of youth and the fragility of old age.