Teenagers have had a rough go of it recently, and Alecky Blythe’s verbatim epic Our Generationassembled from over 600 hours of interviews with 12 adolescents over the last five years, makes an ambitious attempt to capture some ineffable sense of what it means to be young in Britain.
Stories span from Birmingham to Glasgow, from Belfast to South London. There’s the brash, celebrity-obsessed siblings Ayesha and Ali, whose family is rocked by tragedy; the privately educated Emily, who’s preoccupied with becoming head of house; and confident, popular Annabella, who struggles with a turbulent relationship with her mother de ella.
Blythe assembles and arranges these interviews like a conductor, and there is certainly something musical in how certain moments refract and emphasize others. Our Generation is at its best, and most compelling, when Blythe manages to juxtapose differing experiences of a common hurdle, like mock GCSEs or leaving school: where smart, precocious Robyn takes a job in a chicken shop and dreams about studying screenwriting, anxious public schoolboy Lucas aimlessly considers driving around Europe on his gap year.
While Our Generation is engrossing and sensitively curated, it lacks depth – instead sailing along on the inherent charisma of the teenagers involved, hoping that depth will arise out of the banality of day to day life. And it feels most trite when Blythe attempts to drill down into various, loosely constructed “themes”, like the impact of social media, self-image, and Covid. It’s not the kids that are the problem – they are dynamic and lovable in their mix of preternatural maturity and adolescence – but instead the open-endedness of the concept, which means through its hefty runtime of three hours and 40 minutes. One feels a morbid, uncomfortable sense of fascination when tragedy strikes in their lives, something that calls into question the ethical considerations of verbatim theatre.
Director Daniel Evans coaxes out some beautiful performances from his ensemble: Helder Fernandes as Luan, the bolshy basketball player, is relaxed and swaggering; and Rachel Diedericks as Ierum, a sweet girl who’s self-conscious about her body de ella, is a tender, delicate presence, with a surprisingly steely core. The adults in the company are astonishingly supple performers too, multi-roling as stuffy teachers and concerned parents and switching accents at the drop of the hat. Hasan Dixon is a particular standout as Luan’s droll father.
Evans keeps his production fairly stripped back, letting the voices take center stage, but the occasional, more showy points of the show are hackneyed in their execution: a rhythmic movement section meant to explore the teenagers’ reliance on their phones is undeniably corny, and the moment where the ensemble sings an acapella cover of the dated fun. song “Some Nights” feels like a decision quite evidently made by adults, instead of something organic to teenagers.
Vicki Mortimer’s sleek design, meanwhile, gives the impression of a blackboard slate wiped clean, and Akhila Krishnan’s complimentary video projections, which scrawl chalk drawings on the back wall of the Dorfman, is evocative, if underused. Our Generation is an experiment that, though steered by some phenomenally assured performances, collapses under its own weight.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.