Last week the Young Vic’s Young Ambassadors presented the maiden performance of SE1, a forty-five minute exploration of modern life in London’s breathless sprawl. The play, co-written by Dorcas Ayeni-Stevens and Alastair Curtis, is formed from a series of monologues spoken by a diverse set of characters all linked by a shared sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction at their current prospects and trajectory.
The top floor of the run-down Platform building in Waterloo was an appropriate setting, the set bare aside from the odd prop or piece of furniture, rightly directing the focus of the play’s first draft onto the essential execution of script and character. With actors stationed around the perimeter of the room, the play is staged as a ‘promenade’, whereby the audience occupy the same space as the actors and can walk ‘freely’ (or in reality, uneasily) around the room.
This staging decision was effectively realised, allowing the audience to dip in and out of the characters’ lives while they remained confined to the same fixed location, reinforcing the sense of fatalism and entrapment that loomed over their stories. It also produced a visible audience-character dynamic a traditional theatre layout does not allow for – it was telling to see which characters the audience felt relaxed around and which they kept their distance from.
The performance starts and ends with ‘Creature’, a mad-eyed, distressed everyman figure, impressively portrayed by Ollie Harrison-Hall. Though an interesting concept, ‘Creature’ does not punctuate the narrative or interact with the characters it is supposed to embody often enough to really merit the key introductory and concluding passages. In a play that is otherwise filled with sensitively-drawn characters who are true to real life and relatable, ‘Creature’ feels too obviously like a dramatic exposition.
After its unhinged opening gambit (‘nothing private, nothing hidden… the dirty laundry of messy lives – hear it all… feel it all’), it is up to the characters to play out its anxieties in their everyday lives. Among this assortment is Julie, an aspiring receptionist for a large firm; Edward, an unhappily married and unsuccessful playwright; Peter, a spoilt rich kid laying out half-formed business plans with Daddy’s money; Sana, an alienated, poverty stricken English student with few job prospects; her friend Teju, a Nigerian migrant and constant family disappointment, and Woman, an elderly widow suffering severe memory loss.
Sana (Sharita Oomeer), Julie (Gabrielle Sheppard) and Woman (Catherine Herman) are stand-out characters, and would warrant further development if the play grows to be a longer piece. Sana is well-balanced, sympathetic without being cloying, witty without seeming forced. Julie, while initially a ridiculously overenthusiastic embodiment of corporate, ladder-climbing ‘goal-based’ aspiration, ends up a believable and pathetic figure, as her unglamorous reality cuttingly undermines the language of business buzzword bullshit she adopts.
Some of the other parts, especially that of Edward and Peter are underdone and unsatisfactory, as is the play’s abrupt and anti-climactic conclusion. Both plot-lines certainly showed potential but needed fleshing out. The script flirts with the idea of interweaving the characters’ stories but never quite commits. For example Peter and Sana’s paths overlap when Peter buys up her community recreation centre, one of the few places Sana feels a sense of belonging. In alluding to London’s growing gentrification, this moment excellently exposes how the lives of the poor are touched by the rich as if by the offhand of an uncaring, profit-driven divinity. It was a shame the characters’ lives did not crossover more often. Not only would it add greater coherence to SE1’s overarching narrative, it would also strengthen the relevance for ‘Creature’ as a figuring who represents and links every character.
While the characters’ existence may seem depressingly empty and mundane, the play is not without humour or hope. Indeed it is precisely the hope and tangibility of a better life that evokes so much pathos. The plight of the play’s young characters in particular elicit sadness and anger: the result of a generation fucked over time and again by six years of malicious Conservative policy.
While some plot-lines are not tied together and some characters not fully-formed, SE1 showed itself to be an extremely promising piece of theatre in-the-making. With further resources and revision SE1 could turn out to be an excellent examination of London’s polarised and displaced that speaks to a generation of forgotten, maltreated have-nots.