Riots, peer pressure and gang culture – Advice for the Young at Heart, the new play by Roy Williams, boldly faces these all-too-topical themes, showing how history often repeats itself. Through clever staging, we see life in Notting Hill in both 2011 and 1958 through the troubled eyes of mixed race teenager Candice (strongly delivered by Alix Ross) in conversations with her recently deceased grandfather, Sam.
Whilst Candice is in modern day attire, all hoop earrings and attitude, the grandfather (a heartfelt performance from Matt-Bradley Robinson) is a figure of the past, depicted in 1950s Teddy Boy “threads”. We witness his struggles at a turbulent time when race riots were the order of the day and see the trouble he faced at the time for dating a black girl.
With memories of the 2011 riots still fresh in the audience’s mind, the play is a cool reminder of the chaotic scenes which unfolded so rapidly across the country. Memories of the shattered window fronts and sheer defiance of the rules come crawling back to mind. The prevalence of mobile phones in the play reminds us how word spread like wild fire through BBM and Twitter, revealing where the riotous action was taking place. Through Candice’s mobile conversations, we also encounter the unseen Ryan, her gang leader boyfriend, notorious for his violent tendencies. For all her bravado, it soon becomes clear that Candice is merely his abused pawn, a strategic tool for luring his victims into a honey trap before Ryan and his crew attack. However, this time the intended victim is one of her long-term friends, Clint (an endearingly credible Adrian Richards).
Clint brings a much needed injection of humour to the heavy proceedings. His poor looting skills and genuine likeableness have the audience chuckling in their seats. However, as the plot darkens and he slowly realises that he is the next victim on Ryan’s list, we see him for more than just light relief. As Candice grapples with her difficult choice, the scenario mirrors the hard decisions that her grandfather had to make before her.
The mood changes as the tough-talking Candice finally lets the mask slip. A shocking revelation exposes that she is actually frightened, too afraid to defy her boyfriend for fear of the consequences. This is moving to watch, made sadder by the realism of the situation. Whilst the controlling boyfriend wields the power over Candice in 2011, it is Sam’s older brother Kenny (Joe Stamp) who has a dominant influence over his sibling back in the 50s. The play shows Candice and Sam’s difficulties in making the ‘right’ decisions in the face of strong emotional pressure, a theme that may strike a chord with younger audiences.
Advice for the Young at Heart is a part of Theatre Centre’s 60th Anniversary tour and is a robust and poignant piece of theatre. The granddad’s haunting scenes from the 1950s offer a glimpse into a chilling world of racism that we would hurry to forget. With these historical scenes running alongside our modern day urban story, we flinch at both the stark differences and the similar, darker, fear culture that breeds in both worlds.
In some plays the street slang dialogue can run the risk of sounding twee and patronising to younger audiences, but the actors deliver with such sincerity that it doesn’t jar. It also helps that Roy Williams has created a script as sharp as the blades in the gang leaders’ pockets. With an age guidance of 14+, Advice for the Young at Heart is an excellent show that I would strongly encourage teenage audiences to see.
Advice for the Young at Heart is touring until 22 November 2013. For more information on tour dates visit Theatre Centre’s website.
Photo: Sarah London for Theatre Centre.