You Can See the Hills is an account of a young man’s journey from boyhood to (almost) maturity in Oldham in the 1980s. William Ash takes us through Adam’s life, beginning at the age of about 13 and finishing the summer after he leaves school.
Writer/director Matthew Dunster’s script is slick and funny. It brims with references that will be recognisable to anyone who grew up during that time. Mentions of puff-ball skirts, Tomorrow’s World and Duran Duran inspire mixed emotion: nostalgia for long-gone adolescences mingled with shame for the naff obsessions of less discerning days.
Ash’s performance is truly impressive. In addition to playing Adam at various ages he takes on friends, family members, teachers and girlfriends. In an important scene that examines the cruelty that arises from pack mentality, Ash successful gets across the drama of the situation, describing the responses of a huge range of individuals. The tension is palpable. In one-on-one encounters with the opposite sex Ash is also skilled, portraying the fundamentally different attitudes of boys and girls at this age.
It is in the transition between trivialities and moments of high emotion however where Ash really shines. Adam’s relationship with his grandfather and response to his grandmother’s death are presented with great sensitivity and power and the tears glistening in Ash’s eyes are immensely evocative. Two seconds and a change of house lights later and Ash is grinning again and we are jerked from our sadness, taken with him on the next stage of his journey.
As is perhaps to be expected in a play about a teenage boy, Dunster’s script is heavy with bawdy humour, but its lack of sophistication does the evening no harm. Ash’s timing is immaculate and he will have audiences squealing with laughter. Dunster’s skill is in blending this naughtiness with the more serious issues that attend growing up in an environment where childhood doesn’t last long.
Adam must negotiate relationships with authority figures, the loss of loved ones, the responsibilities that come with increasing independence and the moral dilemmas of bullying and faithfulness within relationships. Oldham in the 1980s is a hard place, but this truth is handled with great subtlety, seen through the eyes of a boy who has nothing else to compare it with.
Towards the end of the play the effectiveness of Dunster’s writing becomes even more apparent: Adam makes reference to events in the past that a younger version of himself has already told us about, without realising that he is repeating himself. The audience’s attention is drawn to the fallibility of memory and the way our experiences change us and our image of ourselves.
Despite the huge skill of both Dunster as writer/director and Ash as performer, there is something inherently difficult about You Can See the Hills. For one, it is too long: a total running time of over two hours including an interval is asking too much of the one-man-play format. Ash is a vocally dynamic performer but he barely moves from his chair throughout the show. Sitting in the midst of photographic and recording equipment he barely engages with the design. Aside from canvasses which surround the audience at ceiling level on three sides and show images of the eponymous hills, there may as well not be a design at all.
The photographic and recording equipment hints at the idea of some sort of formal interview context, but nothing in the script or Ash’s performance alludes to this in any way. On the contrary, the audience is addressed informally, imagined as Adam’s peers, other young people privileged with the intimate information he offers us. More could have been done here to explain why and how Adam is telling his story.
Moving, hilarious and clever You Can See the Hills may be, but unfortunately, falling somewhere between theatre and memoir, it is ultimately unsatisfying.
Till 9 May 2009