Seventeen, by Matthew Wittet | Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks

Belvoir (http://belvoir.com.au) | Belvoir Street Upstairs | Until 13 September

Peter Carroll; Maggie Dence; John Gaden; Genevieve Lemon; Barry Otto; Anna Volska.

The first thing I saw was this cast list and I jumped at it. To see these Aussie theatre veterans on stage, together, in one show? Of course!

All my theatre-related neurons were firing in anticipation.

Then I saw this article (link: http://tinyurl.com/oqwmbq4) about how Taylor Swift, at the 11th hour, granted the production rights to use her teeny-bopper hit Shake it Off after a concerted social media campaign.

I read: “The Belvoir Street Theatre play Seventeen … features a cast of actors in their 70s playing 17-year-olds on their last day of school.”

Huh? Wow! What a concept. There is so much potential in this idea to explore so many things. The challenges in physically aging faster than mentally and emotionally. Or perhaps how ‘coming of age’ experiences happen more than once throughout our lives – the end of high school, our first child, divorce, retirement, the move to a nursing home.

I couldn’t wait!

The Guest and I arrived at the theatre early to do the usual soak-up-the-theatre-atmosphere over a red wine. We perused the program and alarm bells sounded for both of us:

“But I didn’t want these characters to be played by teenagers. I wanted them to be played by actors in their 70s – theatre elders who would get a chance to do something that is rarely asked of them … I wanted to see my favourite actors transform into these strange, vulnerable and boisterous creatures,” wrote the writer, Matthew Whittet, in his notes.

Oh dear. Oh very dear.

To my Guest and I this smacked of condescension at best and, at worst, gimmick.

It was glorious, though, to see these actors achieve the transformation. Sure, their enunciation was a little too perfect – or self-consciously lax in some instances – for teenagers. And, sure, the energy level seemed a slightly more sedate 33rpm rather than a teen speed of 45rpm.

But, like, they totally bring it off.

Gaden (Mike) and Carroll (Tom) scramble up the monkey bars and play on the slippery dip with an irony befitting cool 17-year-olds, not a creak and a groan befitting 70-year-olds. Dence (Sue) and Volska (Edwina) slag off at each other with a youthful petulance. Lemon (Lizzy) flits about as Mike’s kid sister with a youthful lack of physical self-consciousness, and Otto brings his own brand of troubled vulnerability to young Ronny.

But I still have to wonder why the casting. The play is a coming-of-age soap opera. It’s the last day of exams and the group has decided to spend the night hanging out at the local park, drinking and celebrating. One of them will be heading to Melbourne in a few days for university. The others will also mostly be going their separate ways. During the evening, loves are declared and lost, a game of Truth and Dare reveals too much, relationships are tested. It could just as easily have been played by a cast of teenagers, with no loss of depth or irony.

There were only two scenes when the casting brought a new and poignant perspective to the drama. In one, Tom recounts a dream he had in which he’d suddenly aged. Watching this scene played by an older actor brought into sharp relief those times we ourselves have wondered at how life has passed so quickly.

There was so much potential for this, and themes like it, to be explored with this cast, but unfortunately the opportunity was missed. Which is a shame, because this amazing and entertaining cast could have certainly handled a much more meaty and thought-provoking script.

Images: Brett Boardman