It’s always a risk when you try to universally capture the very personal experience of being young, even in a youth production. The Fall by the National Youth Theatre takes it one great hubristic lunge further: attempting to capture what it is like to grow up, grow old and die too. These young actors run the risk of coming over arrogant: brash in the assumption that they possess knowledge without experience. They risk estranging the entire adult audience. It’s a gamble for certain, and a bust if they don’t deliver completely.
The Fall is one of a three-play season of new writing at the Finborough Theatre, to celebrate the National Youth Theatre’s 60th anniversary.
Writer James Fritz (whose Four Minutes Twelve Seconds was nominated for an Olivier Award earlier in the year) structures the play into three shorter pieces, named for their order in the play, and subtly linked in a way that reminded me of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. In First, two lustful teenagers (LaTanya Peterkin and Oliver Clayton) have used a spare key to steal into a neighbour’s empty house. They hope to enjoy a genuine private moment at last. From the off Fritz captures the spirit of teenage risk-taking while giving the actors the opportunity to face up to once-in-a-lifetime dilemmas. Second shows us decades in the life of a married couple (James Morley and Katya Morrison). Every pause in time has been excised and the full force of their lives and their lines are delivered to us at lightning speed. Third is set in the cramped four bed cell in a care home of the future. Euthanasia, with a healthy compensation package for their relatives, is a choice given to each of the residents (Hannah Farnhill, Matilda Doran-Cobham, Simeon Blake Hall and Ben Butler).
Starting us off and separating each act is a short burst of One Direction’s “Live While We’re Young” which crashes from the sound system and is sung along to by the cast. The stomping and lung-bursting volume of the actors shakes the entire room. It’s quite something, and a nice upbeat contrast to the blue note conclusion of each piece, allowing the slate to be wiped clean for what follows.
What struck me most clearly was how well director Matt Harrison and his cast had paced the darkly comic moments. Timing throughout had the precision of an Olympic gymnast, particularly in the sparring flirtations of Peterkin, and Doran-Cobham’s cracking whip of a tongue. Most notable in this regard however are Morrison and Morley who give a virtuosic impression of their abilities to hit each staccato note of humour and of tragedy. In such a pacey piece it takes something special to turn on a sixpence and deliver “I love you” with such weighty maturity.
Though tragic notes weren’t always played to perfection, it will be those that were which stick with me. Butler is harrowing in his seething criticism yet emotional vulnerability; Clayton takes some time to warm up in his piece, but excels in a moment of abject panic at First’s climax; Blake-Hall’s lyrical delivery makes him instantly engaging. I could have listened to the stories of his youth, and the poetry of his dialogue (“My life’s just been shredded paper. Deleted emails”) for hours. My highlight of the night however was Morrison’s pillow-smashing breakdown over his mother’s frail aging. It’s an incredibly moving moment and wholly convincing as his chaotic reflex crescendos.
Harrison has worked well with his cast to ensure that there is real chemistry between them, particularly Clayton and Peterkin. There is also fluid physical work that he uses to overcome the squashed confines of the Finborough Theatre’s small space. The script gives no direction on the characters’ genders, and so it was also pleasing to see a non-heterosexual relationship introduced without comment.
Harrison has got all three pieces working beautifully as a whole, evident most clearly in Third. If you’re going to show people choosing to be euthanised, you have to live up to the daunting task of making it believable that they would do so. And while Farnhill may have played her character a little meekly to begin, the way that she lashes at the reins in her final monologue is full of an awesome fire.
It’s a show that is at its best when flying at pace. It might be an incredible opportunity for these young actors to perform at a professional venue such as the Finborough, but after such an impressive evening of theatre it is easy to see how so much of our finest acting talents take their fledgling steps into the profession through NYT. These current talents have produced an exciting production that completely justifies their place on the professional stage.