The stage version of Colin MacInnes’ 1959 novel Absolute Beginners premiered last night (3 May 2007, previews from 26 April) at the Lyric Hammersmith in a physical production that critics found to be lacking “fire” (See News, 1 Dec 2006).
Liam Steel directs and Lizzie Clachan designs Roy Williams’ adaptation of MacInnes’ look at the first teenagers, celebrity, pop, jazz, and the 1958 Notting Hill race riots through the eyes of protagonist Photo Boy (Sid Mitchell), an arrogant youth who swaggers about London between photo-shoots, coffee bars, West End parties and Soho jazz clubs. The production, which continues its limited season until 26 May 2007, also features original music by MOBO award winner Soweto Kinch.
According to first night critics, Absolute Beginners portrays a changing London embracing style-conscious youth culture and teenagers “blowing away the cobwebs of post-war life … creating the world anew”, but seems to have lost some of its “snap, crackle and pop” during translation from page to stage.
Michael Coveney for Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “Here is a fascinating project that doesn’t catch fire. The Lyric has taken the ‘art house’ route with all this, when what was probably needed was a touch of the old Joan Littlewoods, a bit of up-and-at-it rough and tumble. Director Liam Steel (formerly of DV8 and joint director of Stan Won’t Dance) and designer Lizzie Clachan (founder member of Shunt) place the action on an astonishing cityscape of primary-coloured abstract blocks and mobile trucks; drench it in a cool, bebop jazz score by Soweto Kinch, with a hint of Billie Holiday and an early override of Laurie London’s ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’; and frame it in a snapshot style that evokes the cinematic sequel of the 1960s, Antonioni’s Blowup. Julien Temple’s enjoyable but incomprehensible 1986 movie version of Absolute Beginners (with Patsy Kensit, David Bowie and Ray Davies) at least had a reckless energy missing in the performances here, none of which really pierce the glazed surface of the show and hit the back of the theatre. Sid Mitchell is a cute enough Photo Boy but, deprived of the Colin MacInnes whiplash wit and anger in the narration, he comes across as a cipher, as indeterminate as one of his own negatives.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Perhaps because the cast is small, those riots are evoked in a stylised, balletic way, which deprives them of all danger. Indeed, Liam Steel’s production is shorter on atmosphere than it need be, largely because the set consists of stairs, landings and cubes that sometimes impede sightlines and never evoke the strange, chaotic, fascinating city that MacInnes described.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - “The road from page to stage often proves to be booby-trapped with problems. So it sadly proves in this staid, mildly engaging adaptation by Roy Williams. The valiant Mr Williams cannot disguise the fact that for all Absolute Beginners' low-life vitality, its mixed black and white cast of cool bohemians and wide-boys trying to make it in the city, the novel remains resistant to theatrical treatment. In the novel Photo Boy's scathing, know-all, first-person narration and his lyrical love letter to London makes Absolute Beginners seem both a fine satire and an elegy to a vanished world. You cannot reproduce these devices or generate these emotions in a stage adaptation. The heart of the novel is torn out, leaving a vacancy that cannot or is not filled.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “I've not read Colin MacInnes' 1959 novel on which Roy Williams based this adaptation. Given the book's cult status, I cannot believe it doesn't have a bit more snap, crackle and pop than this rather bland show, which reminded me of a hygienic version of Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be. The show overlays the era with a faint air of cool romanticism. This is largely the fault of Liam Steel's production, which ushers us into a world of whores, pimps and hustlers, but portrays them so politely as to drain them of dirty realism. This reaches its apogee in the Notting Hill riots; confrontations with petrol bombs are reduced to little more than a choreographed rumble. The attitudes of the time are all there, but not the city's seething dynamic.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Absolute Beginners seems to resist adaptation. One’s jaw often sags in disbelief at the clunky acting, the leaden yoofspeak dialogue and the way Williams has almost totally failed to find a dramatic focus for the show. This is also one of those shows when the director seems to have been far more interested in flashy design than in encouraging the cast to give deep and detailed performances. A tumescent, tumultuous novel has somehow dwindled into flaccid theatre. Viagra urgently required.”
- by Malcolm Rock