Here is a fascinating project that doesn’t catch fire. Colin MacInnes’ brilliant 1959 novel about the first teenagers, the new television age of instant celebrity, pop and jazz, and the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, is a cool classic of swaggering style and front-line reportage.
The unnamed narrator in Absolute Beginners is a true participant in the scene he observes – “they’ll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s,” he remarks acidly, and prophetically – swinging through London (before it was “swinging”), from photoshoots to coffee bars and jazz clubs in Soho to low dives and parties on his own West London patch of “Napoli”.
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. Playwright Roy Williams has done some deft filleting, using much of the original dialogue, structuring the rising racist temperature through Photo Boy’s – that’s the only name we have for him – adventures and confrontations, and providing a good strong conclusion.
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 MacInnes whiplash wit and anger in the narration, he comes across as a cipher, as indeterminate as one of his own negatives.
Photo Boy’s pursuit of Crepe Suzette (bright and pretty Joanne Matthews), the spade-digging girlfriend who sets him a financial target of £500, is an insufficient spring for a drama, as opposed to a novel. Like a buffeted pinball, Photo Boy links up with Mr Cool (Micah Balfour), sexy lesbian Big Jill (Rachel Sanders, who doubles as his sluttish mother), out gay Hoplite (Tom Stuart) and silver-suited mogul Vendice (David Sibley, also doubling as poor old Dad, who urges Photo to live his life for him).
Richard Frame lounges around as Photo’s slothful brother Verne (aka “Jules”) and sharpens up as Ed the Ted, a dead ringer for the 1950s boxer Freddie Mills, one of the race riot hooligans who shake Photo to his core: he doesn’t understand why his friends are behaving this way. But despite his humane, conciliatory gesture of welcome to a magnificently robed African student (Tosin Olomowewe) in the airport finale, you never feel that Photo’s tolerance is symptomatic of a post-War teenage urban liberalism, something we still desperately need more of today.