Yasmin and Casey have one of those heady adolescent friendships fuelled by envy as much as affection. They know just the right things to say to undercut the other’s confidence but they also understand each other’s wants and hopes better than any one else. Casey is beautiful and confident, or at least that’s how Yasmin sees her, white and privileged – she could totally have gone to private school if her parents hadn’t been socialists. Yasmin is smart, gifted at maths, but less worldly.
Frankie Meredith’s play for Wildcard, the ambitious young company behind Electrolyte and The Cat’s Mother, is particularly good at capturing the various pressures that teenage girls place on themselves, to look a certain way and do well academically. The play is also alert to the different cultural pressures placed on the two girls by their parents, as well as the need to perform their lives for social media.
Video projections on the back wall show the role Snapchat and Instagram play in their lives. They fret over the best time to post photos for maximum likes and are able to determine that a girl is cheating on Casey by tracking her activity across various platforms. Meredith spends a lot of time establishing this context before the plot properly kicks in.
Yasmin meets an unnamed Boy at a club and they hit it off. Pretty soon the girls are heading to his mate’s place for drinks and the promise of a party. It’s at this point that 17 morphs into a darker piece about sex, consent and the damage a few grainy seconds of video footage can wreak on a girl’s life. Meredith conveys the appalling stomach-churning sensation as the number of views steadily climbs.
There’s a lot that’s interesting here. 17 highlights the difficulty in getting the police to assist in such situations and the wildfire nature of social media in general, but these later developments feel relatively rushed compared with the scene-setting that has gone before.
This is even truer of the final reversal in which Yasmin and Casey turn the tables. What should be a moment of triumph and empowerment almost feels like an afterthought.
Annice Boparai’s performance as the sweet but naïve Yasmin is sympathetic and endearing and Emma James is impressively versatile as both Casey and the Boy, nailing his mumbling swagger and the ease with which he manipulates Yasmin.
Meredith’s use of verse sometimes endows the piece with a sense of propulsion, but at other times it feels forced. A sequence about Casey’s anxiety and depression, and the changing way teenagers think and talk about mental health, is reduced to an awkward sort-of rap.
Though there’s a genuine sense of tension when Yasmin ends up drinking to excess at the boys’ place, the biggest issue with the show is one of pacing. Directors Balisa Karra and Finley Rose Townsend could use movement more imaginatively too. But the piece is evidently still in development and it shows a lot of promise.