June 15, 2012
ALRA (the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) is based in Wandsworth, south west London, and its third year Acting students are performing these two contemporary plays back-to-back, first at ALRA’s own theatre and then transferring to the nearby Tara Theatre.
Both plays dwell on adolescent sex. Blow jobs on a grubby rubbish tip, drug-deleted rape, sex in the dreams of a horny teenage boy, unprotected sex, naive sex – in the youthful world the ALRA students have created, everyone’s at it.
Apples, adapted by John Retallack from a novel by Richard Milward, is a gritty look at the debauchery and lust of a group of straight-talking teens, very much in the Skins vein. Slutty but charming Eve, miserable Claire, geeky Adam and wideboy Gary narrate their teenage experience in a series of pacy, brutally frank monologues.
The trouble I’ve always had with Skins, and have with Apples, is believing that all of this – daily sex, drugs and general rock’n'roll – is happening to one bunch of teenagers. Perhaps my teen experience was simply too vanilla, but the amount of action the gang get seems pretty hardcore for what appears to be lower-middle class Britain. Realism aside, the story is brilliantly acted, particularly by Maria Louis as Eve, who posesses more than a little Sheridan-Smith-esque star quality fairydust. Her cheeky expression and absolute comfort in her somewhat saddening role (Eve is quite the ‘village bicycle’) make her monologues the highlight of Apples.
Strong support is given by Alexandra da Silva as Eve’s downtrodden friend Claire, whose bleak musings on teen motherhood and being left behind by her friends have a touching sincerity to them. Craig Stratton as the sinister Gary is more than a match for Louis’ effortless Eve – he prowls round the set of rubbish bags, abandoned trolleys and mattresses, kicking rubbish in the air, swilling cheap lager and grabbing whatever he wants – usually his high-on-substances, low-on-self-esteem female classmates. Colour is added by Steph Georgeson as scouse tart Debbie and Ben Bland as the sweetly clueless Adam, though Bland’s acting does have more of a self-conscious, playing-for-laughs twinge than the grittier characters.
The material is bleak and melodramatic at times, but the voices of the characters are vivid and fully-formed, and this cast did a great job of getting the message across.
If You Really Love Me (by Mark Leiren Young) is more of a self-aware, physical representation of teen sex. Using DV8-style movement and a giant patchwork duvet as a backdrop, the cast of five pelt through relationship conundrums including buying condoms, saying you love someone to get laid, teen abstinence and loving the attention being known as easy brings.
This second piece was more scattered and less enjoyable for me – although my guest preferred the energy and inventiveness of it to the earlier play, so the ALRA group certainly offered something for everyone. Some of the dialogue was a little too knowing and preachy – “AIDS is a disease – it doesn’t care who you sleep with” – and the team felt like a particularly witty and lively educational theatre company which should be brought into high schools to shake up sex education a little.
The cast of five – Alexandra Agnew, Robbie Capaldi, Nell Clemency, Sarah Helena Ord and Alex Steadman – charge around the stage between mini-dramas, only stopping to spout quirky historical ideas about contraception. I felt this idea – the ‘if you really love me’ being that you’d sleep with someone there and then, regardless of precautions – could have been more focused and less time spent on other issues.
Both directors (Jack McNamara and Tara Robinson respectively) brought out the best in each performer and kept the material dynamic and engaging. The two sets – one cluttered, one simple – were functional and atmospheric, although not much of the story of Apples seemed set at the rubbish-strewn bridge created by designer Lauren Cameron. The lighting and sound were impeccable and the staging neat and effective.
While the overall combination of the two plays was intense and effective, I was left wishing some of the characters could have seen a bigger picture beyond their own lust, virginity or lack thereof. But that’s a pretty accurate impression of adolescence, isn’t it?