Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Advice for the Young at Heart, Theatre Centre tour

Review: Advice for the Young at Heart, Theatre Centre tour

The young at heart are easily led and quick to judge, according to Roy Williams’ new play for teenage audiences. Though deep down, it’s a. n. other fable about the danger and stupidity of bowing to peer pressure, Williams gives that tale a socio-political kick with the simple recognition that kids have always caved in to such coercion. It proves a deceptively slippery surface.

He dishes up a smooth blend of past and present: Notting Hill now and in 1958. Candice (Alix Ross), a mixed-race 17 year-old, is kicking her heels while looting kicks off nearby – presumably part of the 2011 riots. Every so often, her peppy mate Clint (Adrian Richards) pops up with an update from the melee: “Brers, piling into shops, taking what they want.” He thinks it’s part of the neighbourhood’s history, recalling the streetfights of 50 years before. What Clint forgets is that back then it was a case of “white boys banging up black kids.”

Williams stresses the connection. Candice’s grandfather Sam (Matt Bradley-Robinson), who died last week, rocks up onstage as his teenage self, slick-combing his short back and sides as only a Teddy Boy ever would. He’s a genial wide-boy, a rough kid with a good jam tart, as they say, but he’s led astray by his thuggish elder brother Kenny (Joe Stamp). Together, they beat up a young black man and leave him for dead. It’s a particularly marked act of self-betrayal from Sam because his then-girlfriend, Candice’s grandmother, was black.

The basic take-home moral stands up, undeniably so, and Williams’ magical realist flair lets it land then lift-off again, particularly thanks to a swish and whip-sharp simple staging from Natalie Wilson. However, I’m not convinced he’s in total control of the connections he’s forging en route.

Williams’ main thrust is to tie today’s gang culture with yesterday’s race rioters; to show postcode rivalries and playground beefs are just as unthinking, just as arbitrary and just as plain wrong. That feels strangely crass, as though Williams thought it enough to say once upon a time, you would have been the victims, that your behaviour dishonoured the grandparents who once suffered what you impose on others.

Also, if Candice’s primary sin is bowing to her thuggish boyfriend just as flaccidly as Sam obeyed his brother’s orders, then the riots become background, shoehorned in for topicality. Williams doesn’t actually have anything to say about the 2011 riots, but he’s quite happy to leave a vague connection with race riots a half century earlier hanging in the air. In fact, he comes awfully close to dismissing those seismic few nights as youth’s folly – totally depoliticising them in the process.

Will the intended audience be looking that closely? Probably not. But Williams has left a lot of dangerous loose ends and problematic questions hanging about. For all that he’s given a standard-issue morality tale a bit of fizz, this is a carbonated can of worms.

Photograph: Theatre Centre

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