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Theatre review: Seventeen, Southbank Theatre

The collision of age and youth is explored in this comedic start to MTC's 2024 program.
Seventeen. Five adults dressed and acting like teenagers gather around a swing set to take a joint selfie.

The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC)’s first show for the year is about a group of 17-year-olds who are gathered at the local park to celebrate the end of high school. This all seems anodyne enough, but there’s a twist. The motley crew of “teens” are actually played by veteran Australian actors who are decades older than the characters they are portraying. Not a new play, Seventeen was first mounted by Belvoir St in 2015 and is here restaged by a different production crew.

It’s certainly a novel concept: old-timers aping Generation Z, taking on their mannerisms and expletive-laden speech patterns, while slouching around in untidy school uniform, and later in jeans and nondescript casual gear. Despite the fun had by all the cast, however, the script is stuffed with too much overwrought revelation and the acting at times is more exaggerated posturing than adolescent verisimilitude.

The action takes place on one night at the local playground – a faithful replica complete with tanbark – and what an eventful night it is. The evening starts off in jubilance, with hollers of freedom and a group selfie to post on Instagram, and ends in maudlin self-reflection. By the time sunrise beckons there have been many different alcoholic beverages consumed, teary confessions, secrets exposed, awkward dancing, drunken pashes, vomiting, (off-site) nudity in a Truth and Dare game, a bromance unearthed, and friendships and relationships riven in two and then (possibly) mended.

Written by Matthew Whittet, Seventeen relies a lot on the conceit of elderly bodies moving to a younger beat for its humour, and yes it is raucous fun to see some of Australia’s best-known actors stagger around the playground, full of bravado, anxiety and fear about their future. But for the play to generate laughter, there has to necessarily be an exaggerated mimicry involved and, thus, there is not much subtlety to this production as the cast physically and verbally try to move and sound like gauche teenagers.

As Movement Director Vincent Crowley is credited with helping them achieve the right loose-limbed dynamics. The gimmick, while amusing in the first half hour, starts to wane as the night progresses, leaving you to wonder, really, if this play were to be performed by age-appropriate actors, whether it would be as dramatically interesting to watch.

Directed by Matt Edgerton, Seventeen explores the anxieties of those on the cusp of adulthood and facing major life upheavals. The friends are scared of their group splitting apart: to travel in divergent directions that will take them on different work, study and home paths. As the playground slowly, almost imperceptibly revolves, we meet the tangle of high schoolers.

There’s Mike (Richard Piper), the rooster of the pack; cocky and good looking, he seems to have it all, unlike his best friend Tom (Robert Menzies), who’s a shy and kind sensitive petal. Piper is good at portraying undiluted machismo – at any age – and Menzie’s hunched over body language shows his character’s introversion and lack of confidence better than any words can. Then there are Jess and Emilia, played by Pamela Rabe and Genevieve Picot. Their push-pull, supportive/antagonistic relationship is familiar to anyone who’s ever had a best friend. Jess is dealing with a complicated domestic life; Emilia is smart but prickly.

There’s always an outsider and outlier to any group and that’s self-confessed weirdo Ronny (George Shevtsov) who tries to ingratiate his way into the night’s festivities, to the dismay of the others. He too, has a secret that will duly be revealed on a night when accidental and deliberate exposure seems rife. Tagging along also, is Lizzy, Mike’s 14-year-old sister, played by an exuberant Fiona Choi. Lizzy’s juvenility can hide moments of wisdom and empathy that make her seem more grown up than the others.

In the second half of the play, the effervescent, bubbly mood of the gang starts to lose its fizz, as love triangle squabbling and earnest contemplations of both the past and the future loom into focus. The change in direction is needed – there’s only so much boozy screeching one can endure – but there is also too much melodramatic teenage angst crowding the plot. Seventeen works better when it allows moments of quiet to undercut the hubbub.

Read: Performance review: Malevo, Sydney Opera House

For actors with a stretch of life behind them playing characters who are merely at the start of their own journey, there’s certainly a frisson of poignancy in this play that reminds you of the ethereality of time. On opening night there were far more older audience members than young, and one suspects this is the core reach of Seventeen: to offer a nostalgic trip to the formative years when the wider world was promising, scary and unknown. To make you return to the particular moment in time when you wondered and fretted what would happen after the final school bell rang out.

Seventeen, The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne
By Matthew Whittet
Director: Matt Edgerton
Set and Costume Designer: Christina Smith
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer & Sound Designer: Joe Paradise Lui
Movement Director: Vincent Crowley
Assistant Director: Tasnim Hossain
Intimacy Coordinator: Amy Cater

Cast: Fiona Choi, Robert Menzies, Genevieve Picot, Richard Piper, Pamela Rabe and George Shevtsov

Seventeen will be performed until 17 February 2024.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on