Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans @ Bolton Octagon 05.05.15

It's always a pleasure to be at a world premiere of a new play - well, the press night at least - especially when it is written by Jim Cartwright. I recently enjoyed a revival of his 1993 work The Rise & Fall of Little Voice, so I was very much looking forward to The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans, directed here by David Thacker.

Ancient Youth is about three old university friends Penny (Denise Welch/Lauren Drummond), Doug (Tom Mannion/Matt Tait) and Henry (Eric Potts), who are celebrating Penny's 57th birthday. But while Henry has accepted age gracefully - and even finds the process enjoyable - Doug and Penny (who are married) have not: Doug is drinking himself into denial while Penny is planning on having plastic surgery.

All that changes though when a joke present from Henry - a book on ancient tibetan techniques for reversing the ageing process - sends Penny and Doug on a strange path into the past, their youth and vigour suddenly restored. They say youth is wasted on the young - but now that the old have it, will they use it wisely?

While that might sound like quite a different story from Little Voice, some key elements are the same. Both plays deal with thwarted ambition: the characters in Little Voice yearn for fame, in Ancient Youth for, well, youth; both plays feature an angry, exploitative and unlikeable male character at their core; and both pit two forceful personalities against a quieter third.

However, whereas Little Voice felt very tightly written, Ancient Youth does not. The characters, particularly Penny and Doug, have long rants at one another that, while entertaining, are very wordy and a bit unbelievable. The story also unfolds less smoothly, jumping from one tragic situation to another very quickly.

What is similar though is Cartwright's humour, with Ancient Youth featuring lots of great lines, as when Penny proclaims she has used so much vanishing cream she's surprised she's still visible. And, while it isn't perfect, the play does deal with the issue of ageing in an interesting and unusual way by having the characters actually become their younger selves.

As to the acting, Tom Mannion did a good job of being thoroughly dislikable as Doug, while Denise Welch successfully showed Penny's softer side. The real stand out though was Eric Potts as Henry; a perfect piece of casting, Potts perfectly embodied Henry's Winne-the-Pooh disposition, and was generally a bit of a show-stealer.

Thacker's easy-paced direction was appropriate, and as with so many Octagon productions good use was made of the upstage area - this time as Henry's bookshop, from which he narrates the piece.

Ancient Youth is based on a really good idea, and has some great dialogue, but isn't quite as sharp as it could have been - especially when compared to Cartwright's other work like Little Voice.

Words: Andrew Anderson

Images: Ian Tilton

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