Do you remember what your last day of school was like? You’d just finished your final exams and freedom was there for the taking. The future was uncertain, but it was one of possibilities. Regardless, now was party time. These are the thoughts in the minds of the 17-year-olds at the centre of Matthew Whittet’s heartfelt play. The twist is the teenagers are played by significantly older men and women – let’s just call them people of a certain age.
Events take place in a playground, where five school leavers have gathered to chill and drink. They are joined by the 14-year-old sister of one of them. The hang out together and muck around. But, more than that, their apprehensions, fears and vulnerabilities are exposed. Mike (Richard Piper) is the alpha male in the group. He is loud, confident and belligerent. His best mate since the first day of fifth grade is Tom (Robert Menzies). He is book smart, but relatively timid. He is due to leave for Adelaide with his parents in two days because his father has secured a new job there.
Mike’s sister Lizzy (Fiona Choi) is the 14-year-old. Wise beyond her years, she can see that beneath his gregarious exterior, her brother isn’t happy. Mike is set to go to work for their father. His girlfriend Jess (Pamela Rabe) is struggling with her alcoholic and needy mother. Jess is not sure whether she wants to go to university, but would like to travel the world. Her best friend Emilia (Genevieve Picot) regularly suffers nose bleeds and has her own issues. And then there is the outsider, Ronny (George Shevt-sov), who is known as a weirdo. Hiding a dark secret, he wants to be a part of the celebrations. Truth be told, this moment in time – the next few hours the six spend together – will never be replicated. This is their chance to reveal their innermost feelings and wait for dawn to break.
Filled with humour and surprises, Seventeen develops poignancy as it progresses. It is that evocative transition that elevates this work. Having said that, seeing adults of a certain age dress up and act out as school leavers – often swearing like troopers – is hilarious. There is not a weak link in the cast. The actors shine in their respective roles, each with distinctive characterisations – from loudmouth to angst riddled. Ronny’s movements early days are perplexing – just as they are meant to be – but George Chevt-sov ensures Ronny comes into his own as the narrative develops.
A full playground set on tanbark brings back fond memories. It is the fine endeavour of Christina Smith, who is also responsible for costuming, which, too, has immediate impact. Put another way, the introduction of the year 12s is not easily forgotten. Among other memorable elements in the production are shaking booty and a game of Truth or Dare. Director Matt Edgerton plays up the light and shade in the script, giving Seventeen emotional resonance for its 100-minute running time. It is on at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 17th February, 2024.