Morning is a play written with in collaboration with teenagers, about teenagers and dedicated to ‘young people’. As with all of Simon Stephens’ plays, it is thought-provoking, cheeky, frustrating and – at certain moments – incredibly scary (It was reviewed at the Edinburgh Fringe by Matt Trueman). It isn’t a brilliant play. It feels a bit too clean and actually a touch too accessible to really weave those terrific webs that Stephens so often ensnares us in. But what Morning does offer is the chance for a younger audience to experience, engage with and enjoy a challenging and genuinely contemporary brand of theatre. The importance of such a generous and powerful project should not be underestimated.
Who really goes to the fringe, where performers, writers and directors are still taking risks? Very few teenagers. When I go to the fringe, I encounter only theatre critics, bona fide theatre obsessives, friends of the specific theatre and friends of performers. Younger audience members, still living at home, mainly go to the shows their parents drag them to. For many, this means a childhood of solid (invariably dull) Shakespeare productions, glitzy West End revivals, sparky but generally insubstantial new comedies and razzmatazz musicals. It isn’t exactly a theatrical diet to get the juices flowing and it’s a relief – and a bit of mystery – that imaginative and innovative young artists still find their way into the industry. Just imagine if more big stages, such as the Lyric, committed to putting on shows like Morning; productions that show teenagers just how weird, unique, playful, suggestive, mind-boggling, sexy and shit scary theatre can be.
The first thing that sets Morning apart from most plays geared towards young people is that it contains sophisticated and ambiguous young characters. I’ve lost count of how many token ‘children’ characters I’ve seen on stage. They’re often either evil or saintly. But the cast of Morning is made up entirely of teenagers and each is as strange and near-impenetrable as the next. Stephanie (Scarlet Billham) is a unique creation; a child who frightens but does not appall. A child who commits appalling acts but still remains sympathetic; who giggles through her pain and whose every laugh rips right through you. She’s a girl turned inside out by the imminent death of her mother, whose emotions have been bent out of shape by a context too complex for her young brain to properly process.
It’s brilliant to see younger actors read Stephens’ sparse dialogue. Often the apparent sparseness of Stephens’ scripts prompts actors to amp up the emptiness and you’re simply left with nothing. Here, the actors pour their heart and soul into every line, buoyantly happy with one word and hideously depressed the next. The result is a dizzying emotional tornado rather than the arid desert that is created by more ‘sophisticated’ approaches to Stephens’ texts. These young actors aren’t afraid of the emotional contradictions or confusions. They aren’t trying to humour or smooth down the ambiguities latent in Stephens’ dialogue. Instead, they absolutely embrace these contradictions and the play is so much fresher, truthful and more lively as a result.
In allowing his younger actors free reign with his dialogue, Stephens is creating a younger generation – of both actors and spectators – who feel comfortable with a new type of theatrical experience; a theatrical generation that does not look for linearity and reason and exposition. In short, he’s helping to allow our youth to instinctively embrace something new; the type of odd, clashing and rather cold dialogue (and surrounding play) that is so common in Europe and yet so rare over here. The type of disjunctive, cruel and inconclusive theatre that actually reflects our times. This type of theatre will, despite the best attempt of many reductive new writing competitions, eventually reach our shores. When it finally gets here, at least some of our performers and actors (thanks to the likes of Simon Stephens and Sean Holmes) will be ready for it.