National Youth Theatre at 60

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James Fritz's The Fall

Bola Agbaje's Bitches

Fin borough Theatre | London

directed by Matt Harrison | Valentina Ceschi

To celebrate its 60th birthday, the National Youth Theatre is presenting three new plays at the Finborough. The first deals with old age; the second, racism in the internet age; and the third, which premieres on August 24, stages Mohsin Hamid's Booker-shortlisted novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In September, there's also a huge NYT gala performance, Story of Our Youth, in the West End.

Oliver-nominated James Fritz's specially-commissioned The Fall contains three mini-plays about death, crammed into only an hour. Director Matt Harrison wittily frames each story with the eight-strong cast dancing ecstatically to One Direction's "Live While We're Young" - a funny and poignant dramatic juxtaposition given the play's Grim Reaper theme. The first story sees the excellent Oliver Clayton and LaTanya Peterkin play two amorous youngsters working in a care home who see a dead body for the first time. Their predictable reaction is yucky disgust, titillation and black comedy.

Then The Fall gets interesting. The next two troubling tales present old people as tragic victims of a society that has lost its moral compass. First we see years of an impoverished young couple's life, cleverly fast-forwarded into a twenty-minute slot. The rapid dialogue and time shifts are skilfully executed by James Morley and Katya Morrison, playing roles simply called 'One' and 'Two'. Such is the unaffordability of housing these days that their thoughts turn to their expected inheritance and how they might speed up the process of getting it. On an almost bare stage, the actors successfully build up big tension between the characters as the plot thickens.

The final piece is even darker, with a group of elderly folk in a nursing home being encouraged to take a "very comfortable" and "completely painless" euthanasia pill. In return, their families will receive money. Crucially, the young actors don't 'act' like old people, and this gives their performances much greater seriousness and power than if they were putting on croaky voices or wore wrinkly make-up.

Their One Direction party song suddenly seems like a dance of death. The cast's youthful energy and bouncy good humour bristle throughout this disturbing play like a litter of puppies sucking in vain at their dead mother's teats: the play's subject matter delivers them a sour-tasting milk and their slightly manic responses compellingly convey a sense that things are very wrong indeed.

Bola Agbaje's Bitches also begins with its actors jumping around to loud music, this time hip hop ("I don't give a fuck…"). But whereas The Fall has tightly focused plots and dialogue, Bitches is a lot looser and more scattergun in its approach. This is because the plot, such as it is, is simply two teenaged girls - one black, one white - chatting and 'vlogging' in one of their bedrooms. Through the device of two naive characters in a seemingly safe setting, Agbaje's play explores a whole host of anxieties around social media and racism in light of the numerous cases of black people being shot by white cops in America, one of which was recently live-streamed via a smartphone.

The extrovert Funke, played by outstanding sixteen year-old Tara Tijani, wants to turn the friends' 'Sons of Bitches' video blog political, mimicking their idol Beyoncé. Meek Cleo (Katherine Humphrey) is hesitant to post about people the other side of the Atlantic they don't even know. Their friendship suffers as they disagree about what is acceptable to vlog about and what isn't. Their differing views about the importance of accuracy come to a head when Funke misquotes a phrase, “water over the bridge.” It's “under the bridge,” Cleo points out. Funke's response is telling: “Over...under...who cares?” Factual accuracy and social media? Whatever. It's all about the hits, re-tweets and new followers. They seem like bright girls and as the play progressed I found myself wondering why their frames of reference were so limited given their obvious intelligence.

More sinister in the short-term for the girls is the ever-present threat of online harassment and being misrepresented. Cleo is worried about people digging up and re-tweeting posts she wrote when she was fourteen and no longer feels responsible for. Pacily directed by Valentina Ceschi, Bitches shows alarmingly how, if you're not careful, Twitter can be a bitter experience, Snapchat utter claptrap, and video blogging mind-bogglingly traumatic.

photo | ©Mark Cocksedge

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