Review – Pains of Youth, National Theatre

Pains of Youth
The plot of Pains of Youth is not entirely straightforward: Desiree wants Marie; Petrell wants Marie but doesn’t want her mothering him, so ends up with Irene; Freder really wants Desiree, but ends up toying with Lucy instead; Lucy doesn’t know what she wants, but quickly realises that she wants everybody; Desiree realises that she secretly wants what Lucy wants; Irene is so cold she probably wants Alt, but ends up with Petrell, but probably only to put one over Marie; Alt doesn’t want anything to do with this bunch of psychos and is never going to come round to dinner again.

Having seen a student production in Edinburgh, I’d largely dismissed Pains of Youth as an effort in self-seriousness, in which everybody talks in a terribly grown up way about how difficult is is to be young, a sort of Dawson’s Creek set in a university in Vienna in the 1920s or a Huis Clos in which the doors aren’t locked but everybody inexplicably stays in the room torturing themselves anyway. The key message I took away from it was that it was important to choose your university flatmates carefully.

Katie Mitchell’s production of Martin Crimp’s sharp new text is a revelation. Each of the characters may be written as Freudian stereotypes, but here they leap off the page as (almost) fully fleshed human beings. Geoffrey Streatfeild (probably best known for his work as Henry V in the RSC Histories) gets a double first for his nuanced and charming, even if not sympathetic, portrayal of the hateful Freder. Top marks also to Lydia Wilson (fresh out of RADA) as the predatory, vulnerable and damaged Desiree. Cara Horgan is under-used as Irene, but utterly convinces for the short period she is on stage.

The design, perhaps unsurprisingly given it’s mainly a psychological drama, is functional rather than particularly inventive, but there are a few nice touches: the harsh fluorescent lights in the wardrobes and the sterile set changes bring to mind an operating theatre or a lab in which the characters are being experimented on. The use of sound and music also deserves special mention, since it is one of the rare instances in which it actively contributes rather than detracts from the action (Cf. every production of Chekov I’ve ever seen, in which it is obvious that they’re in a garden, because there are trees on stage and everybody keeps on going on about how nice the garden is, but the director still INSISTS on playing chirping, dialogue-smothering bird sounds throughout THE ENTIRE scene).

This is everything you could hope for from a production of this play: crisp new language and sharp acting from a superb cast coupled with thoughtful and intelligent direction and design.

Pains of Youth is currently in preview at the Cottesloe Theatre. Opens on Thursday 29th October and runs until 21 January 2010. Tickets from the National Theatre including free/£5 for under 25s as part of A Night Less Ordinary.