Acclaimed playwright Matthew Bulgo’s The Awkward Years is a one-woman-show attempting to give its audience an insight into the downwards spiral its protagonist, Lily, is caught within – with a possible glimpse of future hope towards the end. Its results in doing so are mixed, with some genuinely powerful moments and others in which the intent is clear but its execution falls short of the goal. This is particularly true in the first half of the play, whereas in its second half – starting with the sequence in the club – the writing picks up pace and becomes more focussed, and the overall quality improves greatly, finally drawing the audience in and maintaining a high level of emotional engagement up until the ending.
The first half of the play does not share the same degree of focus and effectiveness, and it is very hard at first to engage with the character on stage. This is not necessarily because of her behaviour, or the tone through which it is presented; indeed the attempt of creating an unlikable character, with whom it is hard to empathise, only to then delve into the deeper reasons for her behaviour, is commendable and would have been highly effective if delivered in a different way. The first half of the play, however, hardly delivers a character at all: our first approach to Lily is delivered entirely through a grating string of stereotypes about irresponsible millennials, from the drunkenness to the emoji messages, which give the impression of watching a caricature of the generic directionless young person rather than the truly troubled individual the play is aiming to portray. It is only when the millennial commonplaces are abandoned and Lily’s character is fleshed out, in the second half of the play, that it becomes possible to truly engage with this character, be intrigued by her actions, and wonder about the reasons behind them. That the final twist explaining Lily’s behaviour is somewhat predictable does not damage the strength of this latter part of the play, whose purpose is clearly to investigate a person’s use of self-damage as a way of processing pain. Only when Lily is finally represented as a person, though, and not a stereotype, is this goal achieved.
This lack of balance between the first and the second half of the play is partly counteracted by a writing that at its best can be highly evocative, and reaches its peaks when it focuses on sensation and perception: the scene in which a drunk Lily tries to make her way through the bars and the city is a perfect representation of the distorted perception of reality that one would experience in such a circumstance, and earlier on there is a powerful dream sequence that would have deserved a better segue. Like the character, the writing too is at its best when it displays its own personality: then it becomes almost impressionistic, bold, and intense. It is a pity that it takes the writing such a long time to shake the stereotypical platitudes and truly embrace its own voice.
The basic stage setting is well suited for a work that is after all more about the inner world of its character than the outer world within which she moves, and the equally minimal approach taken by the director is equally effective. The transitions between scenes, jumpy and heavy on strobe lights, appear jarring at first, but become gradually better integrated in the action and add greatly to its efficacy in the second part. Lauren O’Leary gives a strong performance as Lily, handling with grace and intensity a script that is not always simple and a character that is not always as fleshed out as she would deserve to be. In the second half of the play, as the writing grows much stronger, her performance becomes truly enthralling, and her use of body language is excellent throughout.
The Awkward Years poses a number of interesting questions about self-destructive behaviour, the way in which people – young people especially – manage grief, and the way in which appearances can be deceptive and hide a darker reason for one’s actions. Its great potential is realised only partway through, and the writing would have perhaps needed a greater degree of confidence in the power of its authentic, distinctive voice. Like its protagonist, the play too is strongest when it’s not scared of its own identity and feelings, and stops relying on stereotypes to confront those feeling earnestly.
The Awkward Years until September 29