Connections at the National Theatre is undoubtedly a great and useful idea. With the risk of ‘drama’ becoming a dirty word within secondary schools, and the future of youth theatres far from certain, the National can be seen to be performing a vital service, seeking out and nurturing the next generation of acting, writing and directing talent from across the country. It is inevitable then, that a Connections season will be a mixed bag, as performers and writers still find their feet within the industry, and that, on this occasion, I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here, which I saw last night, proved to be a little frustrating and underwhelming.
Stacey Gregg’s piece is the story of a group of secondary school students, desperate to rid themselves of virginity (or at least pretend to), whose lives revolve around booze and fireworks in the park, and salacious gossip about the goings-on of Creepy Martin, who runs the local cafe. So far, so predictable. Things start to get interesting 25 minutes in, when new boy Sean appears strikingly familiar to a dead ex-pupil, and whose heart transplant breeds suspicion rather than empathy.
Gregg picks up on teenage themes in a naturalistic, although not necessarily new or refreshing, way. Lines such as “you want his meat in your sandwich” left me bored and a little irritated, and made the piece at times feel like a bawdy BBC3 comedy pilot rather than an engaging piece of theatre. Elsewhere, the writing does come across as insightful or witty; the trick to growing up is apparently “getting better at lying”, whilst being a good lesbian should involve “following Clare Balding on social media”. It’s a pity that the script felt that it had to work hard to deliver these lines, we as an audience had to trawl quite diligently to find them.
The struggles of being ‘out’ as a teenager still at school did make for an interesting diversion. Gregg writes fluently on an issue where ‘G-A-Y’ can be spelt out on stage by Karen, but she cannot muster the will to actually say it. “Don’t you want to be normal?” the lesbian Wilson is asked, and she is touchingly heartfelt in her revelation that she willed with all her might to be a boy when growing up. I would have liked to have seen this elaborated on throughout the piece. Indeed, having this as the central theme would have made I’m Spilling My Heart…, for me at least, a lot more engaging and thoughtful.
The nine-strong cast (which, incidentally, in itself is problematic; characters came and went without any real resonance) stem from the Lincoln Young Company at the Lincoln School of Performing Arts. They’re clearly having a great time on stage. Special mention to Christina Ellinas for her gutsy yet fragile turn as Wilson.
Unlike audiences normally associated with National-branded productions, those who took their seats within the blistering hot Shed were proud parents and beaming siblings. Many may not see theatre as necessarily a pastime of choice. The standing ovation an hour later suggested that they loved what they saw. So who am I to judge?
I’m Spilling My Heart Out Here was part of National Theatre Connections, which ends 8 July.