Notting Hill 1958 was a world away from Notting Hill 2007. While these days you have to be pretty well off to live there and, indeed, for many people the place symbolises a certain type of privileged London lifestyle – an enclave of yummy mummies, young Tories and trust-fund teens, fifty years ago things couldn’t have been more different.
Back then Notting Hill was the place you moved to if you were fresh off the boat, or young and trying to make a go if it on your own – cheap, seedy but also enticing. It was an exciting, vibrant place but also a place of poverty, with racial tension bubbling under the surface, eventually boiling over into full blown riots.
It was a world superbly caught by Colin MacInnes’ seminal 1959 novel (ignore the Patsy Kensit-starring 1980s film version, it’s truly dire), a world of jazz clubs and coffee shops, a world in which the newly emerging teenage generation were in their element. One of these teenagers is the unnamed hero of MacInnes’ novel – and of Roy Williams’ underwhelming stage adaptation.
You can understand the Lyric’s intentions in wanting to stage Absolute Beginners, it’s a vibrant, still-fresh book – very much in keeping with the theatre’s ethos – and given the people they’d employed to bring it to life, something special was expected.
Indeed the first thing that jumps out at you is Lizzie Clachan’s striking multi-levelled set. Making full use of the Lyric stage, she has created a colourful collection of Mondrian-esque boxes that slide this way and that, opening up to reveal interior rooms and spaces within spaces. It’s a highly stylised view of the city, all big, bold colours, London as a playground for the young. Even the notorious Notting Hill slums, the miniscule apartments crammed one on top of the other, are made to look rather inviting rather than oppressive and gloomy.
The play’s young hero is a wannabe photographer who needs to scrape together 500 to convince his wayward girlfriend to stay faithful to him. Plotwise that’s really all there is in the first half, instead we are treated to an episodic trawl through the city that lacks much in the way of narrative drive. Which wouldn’t be so bad if Liam Steel’s production better captured the atmosphere of the world it was depicting, but there’s a flatness to so much of it, a connection that fails to be made.
The second half is tighter, focusing more on the outbreak of violence in the streets of Notting Hill, but again the impact is lacking. This is in part down to Steel’s decision to stage the riots as an extended dance sequence. You could see what was being aimed for but it didn’t quite come off. The production needed desperately to be tougher, harder, in order to successfully convey the spirit of the novel and the era.
Sid Mitchell was passable, if a little blank, as the hero of the piece, railing against the ‘pensioners’, ‘citizens’ and ‘adult numbers.’ Joanne Matthews was also fine as his occasional girlfriend Suzette. A subplot concerning the protagonist’s ailing father added a little poignancy, but it was only the exchanges between him and his half-brother Vern, sufficiently older that he missed out on the teenage craze and regretfully aware of the fact, that struck any real emotional chord.
Williams also nails something of the ever shifting and evolving relationship between the different racial groups of the area as well. The play’s musical landscape, scored by Soweto Kinch is also enjoyable. But none of these elements quite salvages the production. Things just don’t click together as they should, ultimately there’s just too much gloss and not nearly enough grit. A disappointment.