Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 3 May
, 2007

The 1986 movie musical of Absolute Beginners was one of the most notorious disasters in British cinema history. Liam Steel's production of this new stage adaptation by Roy Williams is not in the same league, although at one or two points it's touch and go. What both versions have in common, however, is a failure to convey the heady potential of the moment portrayed in Colin MacInnes' "cult bestseller" (as the programme hails it) novel. For that moment is summed up in the words of the nameless shutterbug protagonist: "In all history, there's never been a thing like us – teenagers!". In 1958, the demographic was only just distinguishing itself from young, smoother-faced adults, was only just becoming self-aware, awake to its own power and shortly thereafter to the way that power was swiftly suborned by commercialism.

Williams' script is sensible of MacInnes' account of this brief awakening. Photo Boy (as the programme, though thankfully nobody on stage, calls him) moves through an exoticised London: he refers to Notting Hill as "Napoli" and encounters characters with names such as Vendice Partners or The Fabulous Hoplite. (In the programme, even the words "Lyric Wardrobe" look for a moment as if they might be a MacInnes character.) He is conscious both of his earning potential and of his ability to realise it outside the workaday world of older "citizens" or "numbers". This is the op-art world of designer Lizzie Clachan's Mondriaan set of black/white/primary blocks, steps, sliding and hinged panels and trapdoors, constantly trucking across the stage as if the city itself were alive, and using almost the full height of the Lyric's proscenium stage. (I shudder to think how much those sitting in the rear stalls might have missed.)

However, Williams is more interested in the element of race. 1958 was also the year of the Notting Hill riots, and racial tension is seen simmering throughout the play until it finally boils over midway through Act Two. This, and the parallel though less stark issue of class (also acknowledged in the script), is a crucial element in MacInnes' creation, but not its conspicuous centre as it is here, with any teen idealism relentlessly drowned by constant, ugly race-baiting. And after all that, the climax is almost idiotically mishandled. Soweto Kinch's faultless Fifties-pastiche modern jazz score gives way to an undistinguished rap, whilst Steel (formerly of dance company DV8) choreographs the fighting as a clichéd '90s physical-theatre/dance routine, accompanied by an accelerating montage of contemporary photographs projected on to every available surface. This painful geyser of modishness comes close to writing off the entire show.

Williams' script preserves the idiom in which MacInnes wrote, a combination of colloquial speech and the sort of argot Damon Runyon might have written if he had been in post-Beatnik, pre-Swinging London... but then he drops in abstract nouns from a later era such as "exploitation" and "assimilation" which sound wildly out of place. I stand to be corrected, but I would be very surprised if MacInnes' protagonist ever said, "I ain't exploitin' chicks!"

It may be that our own coming of age in a later world, more familiar with teenagerdom and how to commodify it, makes it impossible to convey the moment of the story: you can never fully relive the first time. Certainly, Photo Boy's impassioned plea during the riots for mutual respect and integration now sounds so naïve and dated as to be heartbreaking. But somehow the evening never rises above the level of representation: it looks amazing, but it feels... well, it simply doesn't feel.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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