Life Lessons


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th April, 2016


Richard Cameron’s adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s novel of schoolboy life in Birmingham in the turbulent decade of the 1970s, comes to the REP stage in a Young Rep production.  A talented ensemble of young actors brings Coe’s characters to energetic life.  The plot unfolds in an episodic, rather cinematic fashion but Gwenda Hughes’s direction keeps the action clear, and linked by slick and stylish transitions.  It’s a bit History Boys with its scenes of classroom banter but we focus on the lives of a couple of characters: would-be writer Ben Trotter (or Bent Rotter as his cronies would have it) and Claire Newman, a girl who has an unrequited crush on Ben and whose big sister is up to all sorts of no good with a married man.

It’s a tale of innocence waiting to be lost, the rites of passage of the education system, the trials of puberty, set against the backdrop of industrial unrest, terrorist atrocity, and power cuts.  The setting is familiar from memory – and from much of today’s news!

Anna Bradley is excellent as Claire, turning out to be more sensible than her love-struck and doomed older sister Miriam (Jasmin Melissa Hylton).  Much of the show’s broad humour comes from Haris Myers as class clown Harding – a compelling stage presence.  Harding also brings to light the darker side of race relations of those days – again, we’d like to think times have changed…  Alice McGowan makes an impression as Lois Trotter, Ben’s sister, deeply affected by a bomb in a Birmingham pub, and I especially enjoyed Daniel Carter’s portrayal of her boyfriend Malcolm – the end of the first act is sensitively handled and powerfully done, when characters’ lives are changed forever by terrible, external events.

Yusuf Niazi is good fun as Ben’s mate Chase, Adnahn Silvestro brings passion and energy to left-wing idealist Doug, while Maggie McGuire Smith captures the vanity and pretentiousness of Cicely on whom Ben has a crush.  There is strong support from Andrew Morrin as Culpepper and Louis Sutherland as Richards – the conflict that erupts between these two brings most of the second act’s drama.

But holding the show together is an affable performance from Charlie Mills as the likeable Ben.  He delivers wordy monologues with aplomb, shows us the developing maturity of the character (the plot nips back and forth in time a bit), all with humour, sensitivity and truth.  Ben goes through all the usual teenage anguish – Mills imbues him with a spark of individuality that makes him the kind of kid you would have liked to have been growing up.

It’s an engaging and enjoyable piece – the local references are nostalgia for some, ancient history for others.  I would have liked a bit more period music to enrich the 70s feel, but that’s nit-picking on my part.  The young, skilful cast carry it off in impressive and effective fashion – and I don’t mean Malcolm’s sheepskin coat!


Class acts: Charlie Mills and Yusuf Niazi (Photo: Robert Day)

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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