As both regular readers will know, I prefer not to see preview performances if possible, for a couple of reasons; but September and October are so packed with new stuff I'm having to go on the basis of "when I'm free" so the DISCLAIMER will be making more appearances than usual: This review is of the final preview of Fevered Sleep's On Ageing. Partly inspired by their own approaching 40th birthdays and that of the Young Vic itself, directors David Harradine and Sam Butler and their co-devisors took as their starting point both scientific advice about the ageing process and what the increasing life expectancy means, and interviews with people of all ages. Most of the quotes we hear in the resulting show come from people at least 40 years old, mostly much older than that, but this piece also comes with a high-concept twist: The seven performers¹ (Georgie Barnes, Joe Chanyacharungchit, LaRoque Robinson, Madeleine Jones, Theo Peters, Tsipora St Clair Knights and Vaughn Clark-Phillips) are all between 7 and 13 years old.
On a clinical white set the kids take their places behind a row of desks, laid out as if for an expert panel; each has a glass of water and a microphone, and each begins the show with a speech from someone at a much later stage in their lives, looking back. It's immediately effective and nicely gets the audience into the spirit of it, before we see the physical aspect of the play, which is less about the physical decay of age and more a celebration of the accumulation of memories and experience. So over the course of the show the cold stage is eventually packed with toys, furniture, clothes and other objects that tell the story of a life lived. A lot of this is essentially kids playing, but always on-theme - when a couple of action man dolls fight, the kids have them say things like "You're looking old!" Of the two approaches, the former works better than the latter, the wise, considered words coming "out of the mouths of babes" being very effective, while the play-acting scenes only have so much to say, and tend to be accompanied by baffling white rectangles from lighting designer Hansjörg Schmidt, wandering across the back wall.
If casting is crucial at the best of times, how much more so here, where the creators have succeded in finding an extraordinary group of child actors, confident without being obnoxious, and they seem to have no problem holding a 70-minute show together, while 7-year-old Theo Peters proves that upstaging isn't a learned skill but something you're born with. Near the end we hear how many baby teeth they've lost over the course of rehearsals, how much height they've gained in that time, and we're reminded that even though the actors might still be young enough to experience life entirely in the moment, time is acting on them just as much as on anybody else (not just, of course, on their bodies, but presumably this unusual experience is also going to give them many of the memories that are such a major theme in the show, certainly in the case of the older kids.) How effective the show ultimately is in exploring the theme of ageing is another story, and without the unusual casting it would, I think, ring quite hollow. But as it is it's worth seeing for the pretty unique experience of a cast of children performing a show aimed at adults, and pulling it off. Although people prone to broodiness should probably steer clear.
On Ageing by Fevered Sleep is booking until the 9th of October at the Young Vic's Maria.
¹only these seven are listed in the programme, so I assume the fact that the show's only running for two weeks means they can appear in every performance without contravening child labour laws