Who would have thought that spending a Tuesday evening under the arches of Waterloo Station would turn out to be so enjoyable? Strictly speaking, The Vaults Theatre isn’t directly under the arches. More importantly though, the venue succeeds in evoking the post-Blitz London of Tristan Bernays’ award-winning musical TEDDY, a rock ’n’ roll piece set in 1956 Elephant and Castle. Set designer Max Dorey has transformed the versatile space, entrance included, into a derelict, bombed-out building.
The two-level stage appears fairly simple, but, with its huge advertisements for Brillo pads and Camp Coffee, it more than manages to conjure up the consumerist ideal of the American Dream which seeped into England after the Second World War. As we take our seats, the mist onstage seems slightly distracting. However, a sign from the council that warns against the teens gathering in the space is soon visible, subtly symbolising a generational divide. The sign becomes representative of an opposition to self-expression, against which the youngsters of this musical fight. The teens are frustrated by their lack of money, prospects and culture. They idolise their rock ’n’ roll hero: the American import Johnny Valentine. As we take our seats, the four-piece band, including lead singer Johnny Valentine (energetically played by Dylan Wood), strikes up 1950s melodies in what promises to be an immersive and dynamic production.
The narrative focuses on two teenagers, Josie and Teddy (Molly Chesworth and George Parker), who, bored with the monotony of their lives, dream of escaping to America and travelling in an American convertible. Seeing himself as the next Johnny Valentine, Teddy plans to take America by storm. Chesworth and Parker are completely compelling as the bored, deprived teenagers who live solely for all things American, and Johnny Valentine in particular.
Bernays’ script is partly written in rhyme, and uses the two leads to narrate the events of their Saturday night. Such an approach is particularly ingenious, allowing the protagonists to seamlessly morph into the different characters they encounter: from the grotesque and leeringly lecherous Tully making passes at Josie, to the elderly, aggressive pawnbroker. Chesworth and Parker carry this demanding script most effectively. In fact, the performances of the whole cast are convincing and energetic, whilst carefully drawing out the nuances of the script and the period.
Whilst beginning by narrating a seemingly banal, typical Saturday evening, tension quickly builds when a gun is produced by Teddy in a show of fearlessness, with the aim of finding money to pay for a concert ticket. As Josie procures the gun and points it at Teddy’s chest, the menacing music, paired with Parker’s highly convincing terror, culminate in creating one (of several) crescendos of tension in this musical.
The athleticism of the two actors as they dance and dash around the stage is particularly noticeable. The choreography is at times very demanding, but these two actors step up to the challenge admirably.
Speaking to Tristan Bernays about his influences for the play, he astutely cites the 2011 riots. Clearly, the idea of teenage rebellion is something which resounds as much today as it did back then. Music is also a point of connection between then and now, linking rebellious youngsters from different generations. Every generation has their own genre of music, and both then and now, such music may be recreated in a teenage bedroom. Anger at rejection, and the need to escape the monotony of everyday life remain pertinent, just as the good looking teen idol with a guitar remains the romantic rebel.
TEDDY is a fantastic piece of theatre which immerses the audience in 1950s culture and the issues of the time, whilst remaining highly engaging.
TEDDY runs at The Vaults Theatre until Sunday 3rd June 2018.