Without wishing to sound rude, dear reader, I assume your teenage years may be a little behind you. You might, as a result, view a show called Youthquake easy to dismiss. Not for me. Move on. Frankly, I thought the same initially. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Youthquake is a joy. As I’m taking my seat, smiling Zest Theatre team members make me feel incredibly welcome. The largely young crowd is already buzzing. Verity Quinn’s set is bright and engaging – literally, and figuratively, providing a strong platform for what is to come.
The show is billed as ‘part TED talk’ but that’s not quite true. It’s actually a satirical take-down of the entire TED concept. It is a ‘quake’ that exposes those smug thirty-somethings with a little too much invested in themselves and their YouTube channels to be useful. As speaker Becky, Claire Gaydon delivers an incredibly strong comic performance that single-handedly destroys trope after trope of over-enthusiastic youth engagement work. Her downfall is nothing less than a Shakespearean tragedy for the Instagram generation. Fortunately, it is treated with the lightest, and most human, of touches. As Jack, Becky’s main young antagonist, Harris Cain embodies wounded adolescent vulnerability but also brings pop star magnetism and welcome swagger when the moment demands. Caught naughtily sharing crisps on the front row early on, he becomes an unofficial master of ceremonies as events proceed and tales are told.
Skilled performances as they are, the show isn’t about Becky or Jack. Its strength lies in its local teenage ensemble and the 800 young people interviewed as research. They are put firmly centre stage and have their say on everything from knife crime, gender, #metoo, education, parenting, disability, body shape, climate change and many other stories. These topics might sound familiar, but here they’re given refreshing new spins. The story-telling methods vary. There are a handful of songs, volunteers from the audience bear witness directly, we hear recorded voice-overs (take a bow for sound design Guy Connelly) and, perhaps most movingly, personal handwritten notes are pulled, scrunched up, from sweaty pockets and read to us. Some of these go to dark, dark places and remind us of the UK’s woeful lack of young people’s mental health support.
It is all incredibly affecting yet, not for a second, does anything feel forced or polemical. Every serious moment is followed by at least a couple of laugh-out-loud gags too. Youthquake categorically debunks the notion that inclusivity and ‘wokeness’ are bad for comedy. Director Toby Ealden is clearly skilled at helping actors from mixed backgrounds and with mixed abilities find truth in the moment. It’s a hugely impressive piece of physical theatre too. Patricia Suarez’s movement direction again, wonderfully, finds the truth throughout. The cast, having opened their hearts, survived and found common cause, end by exuberantly celebrating newfound hope and freedom on the dance floor. At which point this reviewer, who had been worried he was too old and cynical to enjoy the show, was forced to wipe happy tears from his eyes.
Youthquake is a triumph. It’s a reminder what theatre is for and just what, when communities join forces, it can deliver. As today’s politicians chase yet more division, Zest Theatre and the young people they work with deserve every accolade for bringing us together. There can be few UK tours that feel as important to see as this one.
Created by: Zest Theatre
Directed by: Toby Ealden
Produced by: Catherine Fowles
Booking link: https://zesttheatre.com/youthquake
Booking until: On tour throughout UK until February 2020, see link for locations.