Cast: Teddy: Joseph Prowen Josie: Jennifer Kirby Johnny Valentine: Will Payne Sammy ‘The Sticks’ Smith: Alexander Bean Jenny O’Malley: Alice Offley Buster Watson: Harrison White/Musical Director
Southwark Playhouse, London June 2015
Set in 1950s London, in a sparsely-staged, smoke-filled room, this play tells the story of two star-crossed London teenagers obsessed with going out, having fun, looking good, and listening to those revered vinyl records whose grooves concealed treasure from America: rock and roll music, and more specifically, for these young music fans, the Presley-esque fictitious rock star Johnny Valentine and his band The Broken Hearts. A mix of live music and drama, with the musicians providing an ever-present audio backdrop to the action, this is essentially a two-hander between the lead characters Teddy and Josie, as they each prepare for a night out on the town.
In bombed-out post-war London, the glamour and excitement of American music and Hollywood cinema soon clash with the harsh reality of austerity, and with a particularly English take on the new youth culture in the form of the Teddy Boys, with their drape jackets evocative of Edwardian fashion. Violence, or the threat of it, is never too far away: the play harkens back to the impact of the war on this generation, the empty bomb sites now reclaimed by London youth as Saturday night meeting places for impromptu music and dancing. These skint teenagers scrabble around for any loose change they can get their hands on, slipping out unnoticed from the suffocating parental control that they yearn to escape as much as they long for the better world captured on the big screen and the records that they were listening to.
From the perspective of English culture, the play highlights how London youth were enthralled by America, and sought to emulate the cool youthful bravado that they saw in films like Blackboard Jungle, showings of which, as the play recounts, led to chaotic scenes in English cinemas as seats were slashed and ripped up by over-excited Teddy Boys.
In the poetic script, full of rhyming couplets, monologues and flashes of sudden and shocking violence, there is more than a hint of a Shakespearean influence --a modern take on that powerful blend of romanticism, humour, tragedy, raw realism and earthy language. In many other ways, whilst very original, this is also a play of echoes, with the new original music subtly echoing 1950s standards, the aftermath of war visible in the damaged urban landscape where the action takes place, and memories of a lost era when teenage rebellion was new and shocking. It also depicts a London now largely gone: modern-day London, certainly this part just south of the river, is now gleaming and screaming with glass towers, the office blocks that hug the riverside now more redolent of the Manhattan of which these 1950s teenagers dreamed than the dockside East End that they would have walked around and known at the time.
This production was brilliantly acted by the two young leads, staged and directed in an exciting and innovative way. The live band was an inspired decision, since its playing drives the story along, whilst emphasising the importance of music in these young people's lives. It provides an immediacy, energy and edge to the drama that enhances the story’s emotional impact. The lead performances in this production are superb -- the actors grab your attention from the outset and never let it drop.
The play is very well suited to this Fringe Theatre venue, not least with the story itself being set in these very streets around the Elephant and Castle area, but it is surely destined for a West End theatre, mainstream or touring production at some point, and if that should happen it is to be hoped that the energy, rawness and excitement of this excellent production can be maintained.--Steve Cox