There have been entire cutesy reality TV series built on the idea that kids say the craziest things. A lot of the fun of the National Theatre’s ‘Our Generation’ is that the bold verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe (best known for the audacious musical ‘London Road’) spent five years interviewing teenagers all over the UK before editing and putting their words into the mouths of a brilliant ensemble of young actors. The dialogue in this extraordinary state-of-the-nation play (which runs to almost four hours) is comic gold dust. One girl reckons James Corden would make a wonderful Prime Minister; another describes the range of social media platforms she’s on as ‘all the classics’ (‘Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook’); a giggly posh boy breathlessly echoes his friend’s account of having sex with a girl for the first time.
But ‘Our Generation’ is much more than just funny. We weave in and out of 12 lives via a mosaic of scenes, moments and interactions, choreographed with snappy dynamism on a largely bare thrust stage. They include Luan (Hélder Fernandes), a basketball-obsessed boy in a Kosovan immigrant family in south London; Mia (Sarita Gabony), a Welsh girl whose dad is in jail and who suffers abusive relationships; and Ayesha (Anushka Chakravarti), a bubbly girl in a Pakistani family in Birmingham with an extremely goofy brother, Ali (Gavi Singh Chera). There are common trends: obsession with phones and social media; escalating stress around school, friendships, body image, exams and relationships with parents; and ultimately the isolation and trauma of Covid, when March 2020 slams into all their lives and completely redirects the journey of Blythe’s storytelling.
Through a dynamic distilling of her ongoing encounters with these young people, Blythe and her team respect and explore each of them as individuals. Over time we gain a view of how life has shaped each of them, and how it’s foolish to make sweeping assumptions about ‘a generation’: these are distinct, unique people, with extremely different backgrounds, experiences and levels of opportunity. That said, there’s not one character who you don’t feel like giving a big hug at some point: becoming an adult is tough, whoever you are, and the throb of recognition from anyone the same age or older in the audience will be acute.
It’s a thrill to spend time inside these young people’s lives; it’s hard to imagine getting so close to these characters without the immersive documentary-style process that Blythe has honed over several plays. Any simple messaging or easy conclusions are swerved by her and director Daniel Evans, along with judgment or condescension: this is first and foremost an exercise in compassion and giving a generation a platform. If that means that some stories are more compelling than others, that there are stretches that feel more successful dramatically than others, then presumably that’s the result of following through on a genuine commitment to these young collaborators. It’s eye-opening, generous and brilliantly inventive.