Sharman Macdonald is burning the theatrical candle at both ends. While The Winter Guest at the Almeida articulates the feelings, boons and curses of ageing, she turns her attention almost simultaneously to the moment at which youth becomes young adulthood in Borders Of Paradise. Her desire to give a voice worthy of respect to this teen no-man's-land means that she overwrites as often as not, but the play also touches at instants on an inchoate generational spirit.
Halfway up Emma Donovan's vertiginous cliffside set, Scots teenagers Rose and Ellen have pitched their tent – the former fleeing the creepy attentions of a teacher, the latter keeping her company as best friend. A group of Thames estuary lads come to the same Devon beach to ride the waves, and the interaction (and lack of it) between the two parties forms the matter of the play.
This is more than what Private Eye would call a zitcom. Adolescent sexual preoccupations share space with Emily Dickinson and Nirvana, with self-mutilation (Macdonald darkly reclaims the motif of compasses from the terrain of Metaphysical poetry) and obsessions with Kettle Chips. Love is defined on the one hand as the inspiration to surf safely back to shore through treacherous seas, on the other as the sensitivity not to finish your stammering friend's sentences for him.
Macdonald's script, too, surfs the breakers of awakening maturity. She tries to fill the entire canvas of her characters, approaching their hearts from the direction of their heads (unlike, say, Richard Cameron, who prefers the opposite route). Often this results in speeches whose elliptical phrasing is finely put together, but simply not designed to be delivered on stage by young actors. When she does crystallise moments, however, her words verge on that faltering youthful song at the edge of hearing that we sometimes wish we could remember for ourselves.
Pauline Turner and Kathy Kiera Clarke have more unambiguously fine moments as the girls: not only are the dynamics of a twosome easier to manage, but the rhythms of Scots dialogue are more comfortable for the writer. ("English teachers have got dicks." "Peaceful dicks.") The boys' conversation is harder to pull off: its diffuseness and discontinuity mirror those of contemporary youth culture, but also hinder a clutch of promising young actors from finding a coherent line of character and holding to it.
Its erratic register makes it an often frustrating play to watch and listen to. However, in striving to find words for that cusp of adult consciousness, Borders Of Paradise should strike a chord in the memories of most of its audience. As Lou Stein's final production at Watford, it encapsulates the forceful middle ground which an unfortunately growing number of rep theatres now feel unable to tread: not the pioneering experimentalism which too often alienates their audience base, but gently and thoughtfully pushing the envelope of mainstream drama just a fraction.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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