‘I haven’t got any experience of romantic love,’ says 14-year-old Adam, banished to the back of the stage for the duration of this teenage-eye view of love. Chalking up his list of loves, among them Star Wars and Dad’s chicken curry, he looks like a schoolboy writing lines in detention, while others play outside. His Junction 25 peers, all aged between 12 and 17, happily hold forth on the subject, offering up tales of first dates and heartache.
For all their candour, these portrayals of love are largely characterised by naivety. Attempts to illustrate what love might feel like – sparklers and party poppers – are clichéd and simplistic, to some extent, knowingly so. Squashed tomatoes and screeching violins invoke broken hearts. They plunder pop culture, singing famous love songs and re-enacting Richard Curtis’ magic moments.
There’s a spider-diagram dilettantism to I Hope My Heart Goes First that means it skims the surface of its subject. Musings on familial love, in which two sisters end up in a brawl, material love and social pressures sit alongside a biological lecture on the heart. At best, it’s a reminder of our own formative experiences and the persistence of teenage awkwardness. Mostly it feels insubstantial and obvious; a problem worsened by a cyclical structure that hints at a deficit of material.
Instead, I Hope My Heart Goes First is more interesting for what goes unsaid. That their honesty reverts to cliché, that they struggle to express such feelings says more than the clichés and garbled attempts themselves. Experiences that might seem trivial to us, playground rejection and pecks on the cheek, are recounted as full-blown battle-stories. But then, so too would ours. Naivety comes to seem perpetual and love itself, ineffable.
The question, however, is whether we can credit the show for ideas that occur to us en route. That depends on whether Junction 25 are concerned with love or with teenagers. I suspect they want it both ways, much like last year’s Teenage Riot from Ontroerend Goed. In that, it relies on our own understandings of love to realise the shortcomings of that presented.
For the teenagers, romantic ideals rub against a cynicism that’s particularly acute on commercial exploitation and social expectations. Performers are introduced like a cattle auction, defined by dating credentials and vital statistics. They reject one another with a bluntness that teeters on callousness. They are eager to fall in love, to the point of competitiveness, but also wary of it. They don’t really know what to expect. But then, did anyone really need telling that?
There’s a niggling doubt about the show’s knowingness, it’s exploitation of the cute-factor, but I Hope My Heart Goes First is as poignant and sincere as it is shallow. While directors Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe manage some strong images, the performances of their young cast – totally comfortable and honest – do them most credit. None more so than in Adam, looking on excluded, wearing his heart on his sleeve and his hand on his heart.