17 is an absorbing play about two school friends and the trials and tribulations they face growing up in a small Midlands town.
Although joined at the hip, Casey Smith (Emma James) and Yasmin Sidhu (Annice Boparai) are chalk and cheese. Casey is old before she is young, already experimenting with her sexuality. Yasmin is more reserved, a product of the protective shield built around her by conservative Indian parents.
Yasmin (yes, 17) is clever and hard-working. She is a mathematical brainbox and university beckons although, naturally, mother would rather her go to Birmingham (so she can stay at home) rather than Bristol or Imperial College London. More smother, smother than mother, mother.
Casey is also clever but her energies have been channelled into sexual experimentation and a bit of recreational drugs and booze. Her family background is more fractured.
The dynamic between the two changes when Yasmin meets ‘Boy’. She is smitten by his interest, infatuated and sucked into his lair Dyson-style with disastrous consequences. There is a party, too much drink, sexual chemistry and a resulting video that goes viral.
While Yasmin is heard regurgitating algebraic equations, it is the other more lurid content that attracts viewers in their thousands. The parents – surprise, surprise – are unimpressed.
Boparai and James are both excellent. Boparai perfectly captures the sexual awakening of a young girl who has been mollycoddled by her parents. James is versatility itself, not only playing a somewhat troubled Casey but Boy (pulling a hood over her head and giving him a deep voice) and Yasmin’s doting Maths teacher. Together, they bond on stage. They even indulge in a bit of rapping.
The back wall of The Vaults’ Cavern is cleverly used to project a stream of social media messages and YouTube clips.
17, written by Frankie Meredith, is a fine vibrant production from Wildcard. It is directed by Balisha Karra and Finley-Rose Townsend who employ few props so as to keep the focus on the Smith and Boparai partnership. One moment, the mattress is employed as a bed for the friends to lie on. The next as a car with Casey behind the wheel, driving Yasmin to the party that ultimately will change her life.
The result is a raw, refreshing play that will resonate with everyone and anyone who had issues in their teens. It is fun but with a serrated edge.
One last thought. 17 is part of the Vault Festival that runs until the middle of March across venues in London’s Waterloo – with The Vaults’ Cavern (home of 17) part of the labyrinthine of arches that sit under Waterloo Station. The festival, comprising more than 400 shows, is well worth a visit. Atmospheric.
Title photo by Ali Wright – Check out more of Ali’s brilliant work