Review by Bradley Chapman
There’s nothing quite like Verbatim Theatre.
It’s an experience that no other medium has ever effectively captured. And no other style has quite so succinctly proved theatre’s capacity for inciting social progression. There is something powerful about watching a drama unfold and knowing these are not the contrived words of a playwright sitting at a computer screen, but the real words, real experiences and real stories of the people beneath the text.
It can be joyous. It can be challenging. It can be philosophical. And Dear Adults, presented at BackDock Arts, is all three.
Dear Adults is the brainchild of teaching artist Virag Dombay, who developed the idea after hearing young people complain of being made to feel ‘voiceless’ by the adults in their lives. The piece has gone through many iterations over the past couple of years, being presented in a number of venues, with different lengths and different cast sizes. This means the current version, sixty minutes long with a cast of five, is a fine-tuned piece.
The play is presented as a series of vignettes in varying performance styles (monologue, dance, a beatnik spoken-word number… you get the idea) interspersed with filmed interviews projected onto the back wall. Each piece explores a central concept or experience plaguing young people today, particularly ones that adults may not understand. Dombay, and co-writer Harry Fritsch, have weaved magic here, perfectly balancing the humorous with the harrowing, the simple with the complex, to create a piece that never lags or lingers too long on one particular emotional beat. Whilst the words themselves may belong to Dombay and Fritsch’s interviewees, the construction of the piece – the way these two creators have weaved these words and stories together to create this powerful momentum – is expertly realised.
Of course, for any of this to work, the young cast must be up to the challenge. The five young performers are all phenomenal. Each is given their moment to shine, and whilst they are all obviously natural talents, one can expect that Dombay and assistant director Hamish Chappell have spent many hours refining these performances. There are no weak moments in what these five bring to the piece.
Katelyn Ta is a powerhouse performer. Her technical abilities are precise, able to vocally overpower loud music at times, but most impressive is her ability to carry the emotional weight of some of the play’s most challenging moments. The strongest example of this is when she, with a suitcase in hand, appeals to the lawyer responsible for the visitation rights of her abusive father. The piece crescendos as she tells the lawyer, who never asked for her opinion, that she now lives in constant fear of those days looming on the calendar. It is remarkable work.
Jay Ferguson has a number of dramatic and comic beats to play in this piece and is able to deftly change between them both. His most powerful moment is his retelling of the experience of a young boy who desperately wants to play with toys that have been arbitrarily assigned to girls only. He asks Santa for a Barbie, only to be given a soccer ball instead. Pointedly, and heartbreakingly, he tells us that he had hoped Santa, at least, would be more progressive than his parents. It’s a timely reminder that our words and actions burn far deeper into children than we may intend.
Rose Swanepoel is another performer who is already a master of her craft. Her talent is obvious in how she manipulates moments of stillness and silence, and in how her eyes contribute to the depth and weight of her stories. In a key scene, she fakes illness to avoid school, as children are wont to do, but then reveals that this is to avoid bullying from not just her peers but her teacher. The story is told with a broken smile on her face, and is heartbreaking.
Similarly, Ruby Thornley conveys much of the weight of her stories in her stillness, with just a flicker of her eyelids telling us more than the words themselves. She reminds us that the problems young people face may not be the ones we are able to anticipate, and is able to share the experiences of interviewees from different lives with truth and authenticity.
At eight years old, Felix Pearn is the youngest cast member. Whilst his performance is undeniably adorable, it’s a credit to the piece that it never tries to fall back on this. Pearn is given an equal role in the narrative, and delivers with skill and focus that rivals his older castmates. His commitment to the work is impressive, and pays off.
A special mention must also go to the interviewees who appear in the pre-recorded segments, whose names are not listed in the programme. These young people are incredibly charismatic and engaging, and raise thought-provoking points upon which all adults should reflect.
Dear Adults is a unique work. It is at once inviting and challenging, comic and tragic, subtle and pointed. It is not a work simply for the benefit of parents, but for all adults who interact with kids, or who contribute to the shaping of the world these kids will inherit. Bravo!