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[Review:] YOUTHQUAKE, Stratford Circus Arts Centre, London.

Produced by Zest Theatre and Catherine Fowles, and directed by Toby Ealden, Youthquake provides a platform for young voices to be heard in succinct, hard-hitting and articulate ways. It is a burning furnace of anger, frustration, anguish and fear, steaming with memories, histories and experiences that our youth today are forced to confront daily. It depicts the budding minds of a future generation; one which is sure of its significance and potential; one which desires change and astutely unpicks and decodes the present in the hopes to facilitate it; one which, above all, wants peace.

This performance is clever in pairing two styles of performance together: one crumbling style which involves an over-energised and faltering hostess (Claire Gaydon) who explicates second-handedly the science and psychology of youth; and another, bolder and more confident style which explains youth through youths themselves, through a language that they not only understand but produce and perpetuate themselves. This balance is very cleverly thought-out and forces the audience to not only be conscious of the vapidness, generalisations and over-intellectualisations that often serve together as the lens through which we view our negligibly intelligent youth of today, but also to critique these.

However, I do think that this performance still provides its audience with a very univocal definition of youth. Whilst grunting, mood swings and, more modernly, an increased interest in rap and techno music is definitely a loud and most evident voice amongst teenagers, this is definitely not applicable to all of them. Some teenagers enjoy conversation or are confident in their abilities and their voices and have sufficient self-esteem, or prefer classical jazz over dubstep. I would be wary of how this relativity is deliberated within the performance, for I feel that there is rather little in this performance that features as a common interest or ground to connect youths, beyond technology (or, more specifically, phones), fast-paced music and dance.

That being said, this performance deliberately makes use of a diverse range of voices, opinions, personalities and young persons, and, in this way, gives insight into a wide plethora of issues relative to our modern youth. It touches upon gender, race, sexual abuse, politics, the environment, parent-child and teacher-student relationships, delinquency, and more. It has truly manifold and provocative content in this way. This is amplified by the use of recordings, clips of young people stating their opinions and beliefs. This makes for a particular feel, one which causes us to consider the issues raised as global, not just affecting these particular performances but a wide range of youth. The disembodied voices work our imaginations in this way very successfully and productively.

However, because this performance deals with so much, it starts to deal with very little. Encumbered by its multidirectional approaches, this performance becomes directionless, losing itself in its own turmoil. This is where I find my first hurdle in reviewing this performance. I personally think the turmoil is just slightly too extreme, that the play ends up offering very little by exposing so much. This turmoil is manifested in such a way that no palpable, mature and realistic solution to the problems of youth seems possible. But the play seems to recognise this. At one point, the hostess explains that she feels dejected, like she does not know how to help the youth or better their realities, and the other characters express a deep, deep sense of helplessness. “What difference will any of this make?” “What could we do?” Questions like these start to surface quite rapidly, again and again.

These questions change my view quite significantly on the unsolved [or unsolvable] chaos offered in this performance. These in mind, I then consider the only solution that is, in fact, offered in this performance, one that is much more realistic and, actually, rather useful in the long run. The performance urges youths to work on their selfhood; to have the courage to be opinionated, different; and to have confidence in themselves and in their decisions. It urges them to challenge the present and to own the future — but to do it…whilst having fun.

This latter piece of information becomes crucial to the performance, its techno sequences culminating in an invitation for youths to join in with the performers, to let loose, so to speak, to ask questions and have any opinions heard. The ending is explosive — rather literally, with the confetti — and cathartic. This leads me to consider the performance thusly: as a stand-alone performance, this is perhaps not the most enlightening or impactful, but as one link of a wider chain of reactions, it serves as a good introduction to the problems our youth either face or are subjected/exposed to. This cathartic element makes it a moment, however slight, of therapy and release. It can be seen, then, as both educational for parents/carers/adults and escapist for the young, a seemingly poignant piece of theatre for all modern audiences, then.

However, that is not to say that all aspects of this performance were hugely inspiring, powerful or effective. In fact, there were many features of this play, I thought, which were not so pertinent or eloquent. One of these features was tech. Whilst this aforementioned sense of chaos is captured rather well by the technical aspects of this performance, with high-pitched frequencies and mechanical breakdowns (sound designed by Guy Connelly), and stroboscopic lighting and manic spotlights (lighting designed by Ben Pacey), etc., I do think these elements became particularly overused and samey. This is especially so for the use of strobes and high-pitched frequencies. There was definitely an over-reliance on tech — something else which was also brought to the audience’s attention when the hostess suggests that more “technology” might have made for a more impactful and educative experience for young spectators — and I felt it could have benefitted from more artistic and thoughtful variation.

Another feature I felt dampened the efficacy of this performance was giving the hostess a personality beyond her stage persona. Representing the unemotional, misguided societal view of the youth, I felt it was ineffective and unproductive to unite her voice, speaking for the youths, with the “true” voices of the youths. Little anecdotes, such as that about voting in elections or playing the trombone in a concert, I felt served better as a distanced, retrospective look on the young, as though a reminiscent adult looking back on their teenage years and demeaning the difficulties, complexity and viscera of being a teenager through generalisations and over-analysis.

Then, there are lots of little irregularities, such as the critiquing of the so-called "Generation Z", at the very beginning of the performance, a seeming prelude of more criticisms to come, or the fact that the two main performers, Gaydon and Harris Cain, had character names, Becky and Jack, Despite this performance wanting to present –– not represent –– reality. All of these features limit the success of this performance.

From a purely dramatic standpoint, however, I would like to note how convincing all actors are in the early scene wherein they are spotlit and answer, rather apathetically, the hostess’s questions. They were extremely believable here as audience members, as opposed to performers sitting off stage. Whilst, again, I think the disinterested grunting and monosyllabic speech is a little too caricaturistic, generalised and cliché, this was a most tense and awkward beginning (deliberately and positively so), exposing teenage lack of engagement with the demeaning, overly definitive and, above all, successfully silencing statistics placed upon them. I should say, however, that I would have liked to see a lot more variation in the ensemble’s characterisations — again, the grunting was a tad go-to and monotonous by even just the middle of the performance.

Choreography (Patricia Suarez) was rather lacking in places, particularly in one of the dance sequences wherein the young actors sing, gospel style, to an overtly synthesised backing track. Not only did energy drop significantly in this sequence, with performers moving lethargically from one side of the stage to another, but it was also very clumsy-looking and felt particularly out of place in this performance.

In terms of visuals, I have one last comment on set (designed by Verity Quinn). The house is organised in such a way that every seat provides a good view of the stage, a most impressive and notable and impressive design feature, given its angularity. A limited palette of deep and harsh colours made for both an eye-catching and thematic visual, yet I do think the use of colour here was perhaps a little predictable. Combined with the vicious and volatile lighting, this scheme also becomes rather psychedelic. Whilst I am aware that this would have been deliberate, desiring to engage the active minds of the young, I still think the overall visuals could have benefited from much more calmness.

Overall, this performance is an evocative and thought-provoking piece of work, toying with realism to both elucidate its message and to critique perceptions of a rarely told experience. It offers young spectators a sense of freedom and escape; and to older spectators, reflection. I just feel that it could do with more depth and a more particularised focalisation. I also would have liked a stronger, more concretised style that the performance would stick to, unchanging throughout.

“An inspiring and liberating performance for the youth of today, but one which could find more coherency and deliberateness in its expression.”

Photography credit: Phil Crow.


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