Ali, 14, wants to be a criminal lawyer, but also to go to the US and be famous. Callum adores wrestling but doesn’t think there’s a future in it – he’s a reader, not a fighter. Ierum wants to make the world a better place, but first she has got to concentrate on the tricky art of switching friendship groups. And Annabella, well, she suspects we’re on the verge of the apocalypse. And she might not be wrong.
If you set out to create a dozen teenagers with whom to hang out with for three hours, you’d struggle to write a more heart-stealing bunch than those in Our Generation. And since this is a play by Alecky Blythe, master of verbatim theatre, there is nothing fabricated about them at all – these are real young people, followed across five years of their lives, captured from hundreds of hours of interviews and rendered with immaculate observation by a brilliantly charismatic cast in Daniel Evans’ production.
We watch their stories across a chain of thematically interlocking vignettes as they navigate their way through school, relationships and challenging home situations. There’s no central character as such although Luan, the basketball prodigy falling for his own hype, gets the most dramatic scenes as his Kosovan parents struggle to rein in his strutting behaviour. Hélder Fernandes’ compelling performance makes him a star of the show, especially in the push and pull of scenes around the family dinner table, with Hasan Dixon as his loving but sometimes bewildered father.
There are beautiful performances all round, however. Gavi Singh Chera and Anushka Chakravarti fill the stage as Birmingham brother-and-sister Ali and Ayesha, equally obsessed with the Kardashians and Primark; their comic double-act turns out to contain the most surprising and sobering story of all. Rachelle Diedericks is utterly endearing as Ierum, which makes it even harder to watch her weather her body-image worries and self-doubt, as a 12-year-old black girl unsure she belongs among her “prettier” classmates.
Stephanie Street and Debbie Chazen join Dixon in playing the adults with whom these teenagers interact – parents, teachers, coaches, priests – and their kaleidoscopic and compassionate portrayal of the care and culture surrounding them gives us insight into where each young person is coming from. Some, like Mia and Annabella, must contend with daily hardship and even danger outside the school gates. Others, like private-school head boy Lucas (a delightful blend of comedy and compassion from Joe Bolland), are slowly becoming aware just how privileged they are.
The contrast between the two is not overplayed by Blythe, however; she allows all of her subjects to shine, whatever their circumstance. It’s the social pressures that we see in common here, be it in south London or north Wales, and Evans captures them in choreographed set pieces, odes to Instagram and TikTok. By the time the second interval arrives, you feel you’ve known these youngsters for years, and indeed the show could happily end with their optimistic statements of hope for the future. But the pandemic struck while Blythe was still researching, and introduced a new narrative impossible to ignore: she captures it in a half-hour third section that feels like a coda to what has come before.
And if the teenagers’ resilience shines through, most heartening of all is the way this magnificent project honours the period of youth it captures on stage: a time of energy, passion, warmth and humour. Blythe’s methods tell the teenagers’ stories from their own perspectives and treats them as the people they are – not the ones adults hope them to become.