REVIEW: Like There’s No Tomorrow (The Playground Collective and ATC)

The party to end all parties!

You never know where the night will take you [by James Wenley]

The party to end all parties!
The party to end all parties!

There’s a girl in the stairwell, quietly weeping, desperately trying not to be noticed. She’s the only student at the (banned) afterball not to have bothered with a costume or a flash dress. In her hands she tightly clutches a camera. She’s noticed by a Japanese exchange, dressed as Godzilla, and his endearing shots at engagement cautiously tease out the reason for the girl’s distress. For her, it’s an end of the world moment. With her media studies assignment due date fast approaching, her camera’s not working, and she’s been stopped from filming her planned documentary at the party in the name of secrecy. The subject? She falteringly attempts a stab: “It’s about teenagers, like real teenagers. But it’s also about society, you know…like a problem in society. Like a teenage problem, but it’s not just…you know?”

This exchange is one of the smaller and quieter moments in the hedonistically-charged Like There’s No Tomorrow, but is perfectly formed. In her statement, there is the hint of the show makers grappling with just what their theatre statement is to be. Tomorrow stars a cast of thirty bright-eyed teenagers (or close to), playing thirty bright-eyed teenagers. The social problem? Alcohol. Binging. Pressure of conformity. Risk-taking. Delusions of invincibility. But it’s not just. Not earnest, but honest. Not preachy, but realist. What could have been just a tackling-social-issues sort of play instead eases us inside the heads of its not-so-bullet-proof protagonists and their world view.

The little moment here which I have chosen to highlight also elucidates some of the themes in another way. Once the girl Lydia (Erin O’Flaherty), and Godzilla Kenji (Kengo Hosaka) push past their initial awkwardness as strangers they discover they are able really communicate with each other – a true connection, a small victory. Heck, this is a big victory, and thrilling for us watching. The show is partly about connection, the attempt to express the whirl of hormones, desire, confusions, troubles of the teenage wasteland. It’s hard enough to make sense of it within their own head, let alone bring it out for someone else.

Tomorrow has grown from the germ of an idea from ATC Associate Director Lynne Cardy, who has shepherded the company’s youth development over the last six years into a palpable force, and bought on Wellington’s Playground Collective (Directors Robin Kerr and Eleanor Bishop, and writer Eli Kent) as key collaborators, who created the show with the cast. Initial dreams of taking over an entire house proved too ambitious, but The Basement once again provides the perfect setting, with the whole venue, as well as outside areas, being employed to host the end-of-the-world themed afterball with striking design work from Jessika Verytt in both setting and the parade of themed costumes the characters wear, and Nik Janiurek’s moody lighting  with Gareth Hobb’s sound design. As the theatre community knows, there is no better place to have a party.

The conceit of the show is a fairly familiar one for the current crop of high-schoolers. Fictional Coutts School has banned the after-ball party, but the kids decide to have one anyway – and its turns into an alcohol free for all. The reason for the ban is the death two weeks ago prior of student Joey, who fell to his death from a misjudged jump into a pool at a house party. That tragedy colours this current celebration, the unspoken event that nobody, including sister Louise (Rebecca Smith) nor girlfriend Stacy (Emily Campbell), know quite how to deal with, other than washing down grief with liquor, or looking to quick comfort from the wrong members of the opposite sex.

The figure of Joey binds the show – which contains many different character moments and storylines – together as a disruptive figure. Andrew Gunn doesn’t sugar-coat his performance as Joey, who also appears unexpectedly at the after-ball, not as a ghost, but as an “idea” – the Joey the students hold in their memories. He’s funny, deep, troubled, and someone who might have gone far in life.

What makes this show work, really work, is its immersive strategy. Auckland audiences got a taste of immersive theatre earlier in the year with Zombie fest Apocalypse Z. The Immersive style of theatre is currently in-vogue, headlined by British Company Punchdrunk who took over a Hotel in New York for Sleep No More, and have just opened The Drowned Man in a huge former post-office building in London. The Playground Collective has taken inspiration from this company and others like it, but whereas the Punchdrunk experience is often esoteric, and relies on the audience piecing narrative together, the Tomorrow story is confrontational and all-to-believable. Tomorrow itself lands somewhere between verisimilitude and poetry.

We, the audience, live the night alongside the teens. We’re invited to make “bad decisions”. I’m chanting “scull, scull, scull” or “pash, pash, pash” with the rest of them, caught in the fevered excess of the moment.  I make a windshield so the lads can see who flinches first from a lighter held by the other underneath their palms. Of course, there are consequences to all of this behaviour, and some more consequential than others. But we see, and can understand the thrill of the present for these characters, rather than just coldly analysing the end results.  That is something quite powerful.

Taking myself out of the world of the story that the cast and creators have so credibly conceived, it is very impressive how smoothly Tomorrow operates. One common pitfall of these sorts of shows is alleviated by splitting the audience into three manageable groups via the colour of the party hats we are given at the beginning, and each group are taken round the Basement on different routes and therefore get a different sequence of events. The audience are moved along without too much fuss, often with a friendly ‘come and check out what’s happening in this room’.  There must be some seriously good time-management as some characters pop up in more than one of the different ‘movements’, and the actors deserve commendation for their ability to reset and go through their emotional beats three times over.

Tomorrow begins early for both cast and audience, as the characters arrive and mingle with us in the foyer preshow, so do arrive early if you’re into this sort of thing. The cast make it fun to interact, and clearly appreciate those who give back. I got to dance with a Robot, chat to Ajay about his date, get face painted by girls who assured me they were Mayans even though they looked like American Indians, and even got asked to strip by wild girl Stacy (sorry I didn’t follow through Stacy!). And if you make friends with them early, and they know your name, you might be called upon during the show. For some audience members this might be too much, but you definitely get out what you put it in, and this was all cat-nip for this reviewer – I definitely felt part of the cool group!

Beware: Audiences might find themselves having flashbacks to their own teenage/early adult years (or perhaps the previous night if you’re a teenage audience member). It all has the air of authenticity. Suffering through ‘Never Have I Ever’ with the Mayan girls was rather close to home. The show remarkably captures snippets of the teenage experience: the drunken hookup, the pressure of the first time, the not-so secret crush, the testosterone one-upmanship of the lads.

Wordsmith Eli Kent, together with Kerr and Bishop, elevate these common experiences  into memorable sequences, both beautiful and brutal. Joey’s monologues capture a peculiarly teenage philosophy (When you’re drunk, you’re the truest person you can be), and the characters are revealed as articulate deep-thinkers beneath the surface. But often it’s left to the superb actors and their non-verbal expressions that tell us all we need to know.

The actors have extended their characterisations onto Facebook, and it’s possible to follow them and see their online interactions. The tribute page to Joey, in which they have written heartfelt dedications, makes for surreal viewing.  One post sees them commenting on a media article written about Joey, which contextualises his death as part of the societal problem, and other recent teen deaths. The teens think this mis-represents their friend: “wow… do they not realise that he was a real person?! a son, a brother, a friend…”.

You could see everything in the show playing out in real life. That thought disturbs. Unlike the fictional media report, the show does not judge. So there’s a problem, but it’s not about the problem. It’s not about the drinking. Instead, the show captures a worldview. It’s not about the tool, but it’s about the people using it.

I kept telling the Mayan girls that they were a year to late. The world didn’t end. A wonderful Kent-ian monologue within the show from Emily Campbell talks about how everyone got it wrong. The calendar continues. It wasn’t an end, but a new beginning. Change then. Which is rather a good metaphor for the turbulent teens. This is closer to what the show is really about.

Lynne Cardy says this show was made for 15-25 year olds (this reviewer sneaks in at the end of the continuum).  I hope they see it. The older theatre-goers did seem to get a lot out of it, and it’s a rather good crash-course on what current teens are getting up to (but perhaps it hasn’t changed all that much). But for those of the younger bent, this show is Hamlet’s mirror. What better way to get a conversation going about teen behaviour, then to see it like this? And not only the content, but the form. I suspect this show, by getting us up and moving and interacting, can change people’s minds who have written off theatre. This isn’t a stale worthy drama behind a proscenium arch. There are moments of bleakness and grief, but also celebration, humour, and possibility. This living theatre.

Like There’s No Tomorrow is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and created by the Playground Collective, and plays at The Basement theatre until 10 August. Details see the Like There’s No Tomorrow website.

SEE ALSO: review by Forrest Denize and Metro Arts review by Frances Morton

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