Southwark Playhouse, London – until 5 March 2022
The teenage years are the hardest to navigate. Everything’s changing. You don’t know what you’re doing and everyone around you is a walking cocktail of hormones. You just have to get through these seven or so years of chaos and then everything will be fine? Won’t it? Please tell us it will.
(Oh, you thought we were talking about actually being a teenager? Maybe we were. But as the parents of a pair of pre-teens, we’re starting to wonder if the worst is yet to come!) Well, whether you are a teenager, are parenting a teenager or once were a teenager yourself, there’s a play on for you at Southwark Playhouse.
Written and performed by Rosie Day, Instructions for a Teenage Armageddon first wowed audiences in a sell-out run at the Old Red Lion in 2020. After two years of dramaturgical tinkering from Day and director Georgie Staight, the play returns in a fresh guise, this time in Southwark Playhouse’s small space, The Little.
A one-woman show (with video-recorded excerpts from a wider cast comprising Molly Ashby, Amanda Abbington, Philip Glenister, Isabella Pappas, Jessica Ellerby and Maxine Peake), it’s a cleverly constructed piece that has the audience captivated throughout the 75-minute run time. And while it is by no means an easy watch, Day manages to expertly balance dark humour and brief moments of light relief to create a compelling narrative with an ultimately hopeful ending.
As the protagonist, Day narrates the memories of a young woman trying to make it through the everyday trials and tribulations of being a teenager while battling the grief of losing her older sister to an eating disorder. As her family unravels and her friends desert her, she is increasingly alone with no outlet for her feelings except a deeply dark sense of humour and a captive audience of strangers in a darkened auditorium.
The storytelling is sublime, with the grief for her sister intrinsically woven into every fibre of the story as she recounts the breakdown of her family and the forging of a new and destructive friendship that results in a dangerous relationship with an older man. And as she hurtles towards adulthood, the safety net of a local Scout group offers an opportunity to hold onto what little is left of her childhood. The regular snippets of events at the Scouts meetings work brilliantly to pull the piece together, offering both lighter segments and an insight into how grief can spill out uncontrollably at entirely unexpected moments.
As well as being a brilliant writer, Day is a fantastic performer with exceptional comic timing, quipping about everything from death to Wordle. She is incredibly convincing as an abrasive adolescent whose spiky exterior hides an avoidant child who desperately needs support to recover from trauma. And when she masterfully switches from her default, detached demeanour to raw emotion, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
There is a lot in this play that will resonate for many, including the powerful reminder about how important it is to feel seen and heard. This central message comes full circle at the end when the audience realise that they have given their undivided attention to someone for almost 75 minutes without knowing a crucial piece of information about her. Meanwhile, she realises that while she has been crying out for someone to listen to her, she has failed to listen to someone just like her.
A triumph for The Teenage Armageddon Collective (Rosie Day, Georgie Staight and producers Katy Galloway and Zoe Weldon), Instructions for a Teenage Armageddon is a fantastic piece of work that proves that while the teenage years may be tricky, the future of female-led theatre looks very bright indeed.