Seventeen. Take a moment to remember being 17. Seventeen is the end of high school and your next birthday says you’re an adult. It’s the end of the most stressful year when all that matters is marks and exams, but all that really matters is drinking; crushes; hickeys; pashing and nervous first sex; and the friends that you see every day.
Seventeen isn’t for teenagers. It’s for us who remember being 17. Australian actor and writer Matthew Whittet’s script was commissioned by Belvoir in Sydney in 2015 and it went on to a London season in 2017 at the Lyric Hammersmith. Both were directed by MTC Artistic Director Anne-Louise Sarks and welcomed by audiences and critics.
It’s the last day of high school for four friends (Robert Menzies, Genevieve Picot, Richard Piper, Pamela Rabe) who meet at the same playground they’ve hung out in since primary school. With all the booze and chips they need, they plan to party all night and watch the sun rise together, and don’t really mind that that they’re joined by the class outsider (George Shevtsov) and a 15-year-old little sister (Fiona Choi).
It was written to be played by people in their 70s and this cast are in their 50s to 70s. As it’s set today, with phones and portable speakers, it’s never about the nostalgia of when the actors (and audience) were 17 but is a nostalgic memory of every feeling from being that age.
I still have friends from high school; the only thing that really changes is how we look and our ability to metabolise alcohol. A friend kissing your crush still hurts like the end of the world, we still have our party tricks, and a game of truth or dare is still terrifying.
Having older actors embodying teenage bodies that are full of energy, with an unsteady balance between awkwardness as confidence, ensures that there’s never a chance to dismiss the teenage emotions and feelings.
Seeing people who are old enough to be grandparents living teenage dramas makes it easy to remember that our feelings about life, love, family and friends were as important then as they are now.
Director Matt Edgerton lets each actor remember themselves as a teenager without slipping into the cliches and exaggerations of adults playing young people. And without ignoring the cliches and exaggerations of being a teenager.
The stakes are high for each character, but the story and pace is gentle. The age of the actors creates distance but lets them explore the complex emotions of being 17 with the understanding that comes from age.
Paul Jackson’s atmospheric lighting makes it feel like Christina Smith’s bark playground, with swings, roundabout, wobbly board, and gym with slippery dip, is floating away from the urban world around it. It’s like this is the only place where they are free to be themselves. This is the teenagers’ world, and they know it’s all going to change when they leave its safety.
Seventeen leaves its audience with memories about themselves; hopefully most are good memories or at least memories that are happily left in the past. Meanwhile, get ready to want to call your high school best friend, find your first pashes Facebook, and head to the park after dark for a swing.
Southbank Theatre – The Sumner, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Friday 19 January 2024
Season continues to 17 February 2024
Information and Bookings: www.mtc.com.au
Images: Richard Piper, Robert Menzies, George Shevtsov, Pamela Rabe and Genevieve Picot – photo by Pia Johnson | Pamela Rabe, George Shevtsov, Robert Menzies, Richard Piper and Genevieve Picot – photo by Pia Johnson
Review: Anne-Marie Peard