Youth theatre can be a bit of a dirty word amongst fringe regulars. Right up there with ‘family show’, they don’t tend to carry overly high expectations, and reviews tend to judge them in a separate category: ‘good for young adults’ or ‘promising for a school production’. Prepare to let these prejudices go for Secrets of Us from JAM productions at Amersham School, which is not just excellent ‘for a teenage production’, but just amazing full stop. Compared with drama school graduate performances and even some of the professional shows of the Fringe, this truly stands up on its own as a worthy contender for your attention.
Written by Jess Walters, who has previously written for the Royal Court Theatre, and directed by Sam Mitchell, the large cast of 16-18 year olds are clearly in professional hands. Following a number of interwoven stories, the narrative exposes the hidden lives of UK teenagers. the scenes that parents don’t get to see, and focuses particularly on the dangers of the huge exposure they have to the digital world.
Yet, this is not just another scare mongering play; the writing and the efforts of the cast create a sublime balance between the seriously heart-wrenching core message of the play and frequent flashes of self-aware and well timed comedy. The simple projection-screen backdrop really allows the digital emphasis of the story to dominate the space, and with a number of inventive yet simple props, this show proves that a small budget doesn’t need to impact the quality or ambiance of a performance.
These are some of the most unselfconscious and talented teen actors I have ever seen. With none of the typical pitfalls of a young cast, they all effortlessly inhabit their characters and give their performances both barrels (and having witnessed their speedy get out, they clearly work as a wonderful team both on and off stage). Dan Badrick, paying ‘Oakley’, has a wonderful sense of timing, and gets a lot of well-deserved laughter for his awkward lovesick posturing. His love interest Donna (Abi Cook) is extremely present in her character, and manages to reveal complex vulnerabilities through the arc of their story line, whilst Tess Hodgson Sakamoto as ‘Margaret’ expertly navigates the challenges of a mute character to bring the audience to the dangerous climax of her online relationship.
Jess Walter’s script takes an extremely nuanced approach to online grooming, with an extremely harrowing but intelligently written schoolgirl pursuer ‘Jim’. With Tom Elderfield giving a developed and sensitive performance, ‘Jim’ is an excellent example of the paedophile who does not recognise he is doing anything wrong, managing to convince himself that he isn’t making anyone do anything against their own will. Walters gives us a powerful lesson on the self-delusion that works both ways in grooming relationships, and actually manages to create a lot of early sympathy for ‘Jim’, which is testament to her talented dialogue and ability to lead the audience into an unanticipated conclusion.
With so many more cast members worthy of praise, you would be forgiven for thinking that Amersham School is a performing arts college – on the contrary, it is a regular state secondary school who raised money for the trip with cake sales, car boots and shopping bag packing, just like any other sports or extra curricular trip. Director Sam Mitchell has managed to impart drama school worthy teaching to much younger students, with far fewer hours. Staging an Edinburgh play, with such artistic merit, before leaving senior school will undoubtedly help these young adults int he next stages of their careers, and I very much hope this tradition will continue for Amersham next year, not only for the students but for the benefit of Edinburgh goers as well.
15.45, C Venues
10th-15th August 2015
Pricing: £8.50-£9.50 (£6.50-£7.50 concession)
Cast and Crew
Writer: Jess Walters
Director: Sam Mitchell
Cast: Ellie Hardy, Dan Badrick, Abi Cook, Tess Hodgson Sakamoto, Tom Elderfield,
Jess Gajadharsingh, Kim Walker, Alice Bromley, Charlie Ryan, Issy Matheson,
Livvy Partrige, Ackshana Srithar, Max Gajadharsingh, Matt Barker, Luke Culloty,
Multi-media Film: Abi Cook
Technician: Jack Elderfield, Joe Selby
Stage Technician: Levi Walters
Lighting and Sound: Corey Wilkins