Hampstead Theatre, London – until 4 June 2022
An empty basement in a working class Kentucky neighbourhood in the mid 70s. An offstage adult world is preoccupied with unemployment, the mained young conscripts back from of Vietnam and tricky-Dicky Nixon. Down here is a teenage kingdom, and from the first moments its clear ruler is Jude: just rising 17, going out to work as well as school to pay the electric bill before the lights go out again. She cooks meals her mother cannot cope with, fiercely protects her younger brother Acton, both of them grieving a father who fell from 14 storeys of scaffolding. Shannon Tarbet’s Jude is a marvel, every line of her thin body defiant as she makes sure to be as swaggeringly bravura and talk as dirty as the lads her own age. These are boastful rich-boy Hoke, whose Dad will pull “strings” for him, and oafish Frayne.
Jude is cutting a deal with them to use the basement as a sort of club, with ten dollars (from Hoke) involved but mainly in order to make them protectors – despite her disapproval – of the clever 14-year-old Acton. He’s an A-student who is horribly bullied at school but who helps with the big hunks’ coursework (Stanley Morgan is very touching in the role: indeed ultimately heartbreaking: it’s a professional stage debut flawed only by the screen-naturalism which at times makes him less than properly audible. But that’s more the director’s fault than his).
Within 20 minutes we meet the older three again as adults, 17 years later at a memorial to Acton. Whose life, we gather, was not good or prosperous despite all those As, and who had somehow lost touch with the sister who was his champion and protector. There are conversations to be had about the past because the teenage quartet’s complicated world of loyalty, hot neediness, initial domination by Jude and consoling fantasy had moved inexorably towards something monstrous.
The 15 minute event at the play’s core is, in its teenage whisky-fuelled party- night “dare” almost banal. But nonetheless, monstrous. As adult Jude says near the end, the young think they’re in control, can walk away from one bad thing but “we’ve no idea of the size of the thing barrelling towards us, the incomprehensible momentum of it”.
Naomi Wallace’s new play gives that momentum an onward acceleration, as the longer first half switches between the kids in the 1970s, each scene revealing more of that summer, and the reunion in the 90s. Hoke, inevitably, is an executive in a profitable healthcare corporation, Frayne works for him, and the late Acton was evasively referred to as an “engineer” in the building, meaning handyman. Despite all his straight-As. Jude is a weekend single mother whose daughter “lives with friends of mine”.
Something simmers between them. In the flashbacks we find out how layers of betrayal and weird needy teenage ritual and swearings of friendship have damaged all four . Jude and Acton were damaged already in 1977: a sorrowful secret sibling rite is the “Falling game” where together they fantasise their father’s final moments as almost a triumphal superhero flight (Jennifer Jackson’s movement direction is superb). Another touching ritual is their devotion to reading the Encyclopaedia, whose subscription stopped at letter P when the family disaster struck.
In the adult scenes, Tom Lewis and Douggie McMeekin are fine-tuned in emotional ambiguity as the men, Jasmine Blackborow as adult Jud still, dignified, her old fire now only smouldering. The play is so elegantly tense its two hour exposition that I won’t reveal more. Except to say that it plays a more honest, grim, ambiguous ethical tune than most current variations on its dark theme.
There are some good sour jokes, with Wallace’s American-born bitterness about health systems; Hoke’s father’s health company has joked about calling it YANSAH – you are not sick, asshole! Or THATAB, Thats not a tumour its a bruise. And a wonderfully cynical angry comeback is his when Jude, for the only time, threatens to reveal exactly what happened at her seventeenth. “It’s quite obvious” orates Hoke, every inch the corporate man now, “that you were and still are warped spiteful and of unsound mind – all of which, by the way, can be treated with medication…”
Yes, quite a few US issues here. But the central one remains perennial, terrifying, universal and sorrowful: the fragile tipping into disaster of teenage children unnoticed by adults.
Hampsteadtheatre.com. To 4 June