Absolute Beginners Bringing Colin MacInnes’ novel cult novel to the stage is no easy task, as anyone who’s read it would agree. It is an energetic journey around the west London of 1958, encompassing teenage passion, popular music, politics, race relations and even the power of the media.
However, Roy Williams’ adaptation succeeds admirably and is aided in no small measure by Lizzie Clachan’s inventive and apposite design.
The unnamed narrator of the novel becomes ‘Photo Boy’ in this production because that is what he does – take photos. This 18 year-old is immersed in London life. He’s alienated from most of his family (half-brother and mother) but not his father. The love of his life sleeps around and is about to embark on a marriage of convenience with her gay employer. Photo Boy’s friends are stylish, multi-ethnic and of varying sexualities. It all seems open tolerant vibrant and liberal. But there is a menace at the heart of all this. White fears of immigration are being played on and will explode in the infamous Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958.
The ensemble cast plays a multiplicity of characters with enthusiasm and panache. Sid Mitchell must be singled out for he does the hard work of carrying the play as the central character – the person who narrates the novel. It becomes even clearer on stage that photography is an appropriate profession for he is observing and recording the significant events that are unfolding.
However, in many ways, the true star of the play is the set. It recreates the feel and look of the late 1950s Its innumerable boxes stairs and ladders bring to life the multiple locations of the story, moving the action swiftly from one scene to another in a way that supports the speed of both the dialogue and action.
There is added resonance in this playing at the Lyric in Hammersmith as many of the events described took place only a short distance away from the theatre. It is also emotionally resonant as irrational fear of immigration and intolerance of difference can still be found in British life.
Lyric Hammersmith until 26th May