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Getting down with the kids

Heather Smith's verdict on Frank Cottrell-Boyce's first stage outing, Proper Clever, at the Liverpool Playhouse

Published on October 9th 2008.

Getting down with the kids

A MAN of 47 years writing a play for the MSN Myspacing youngsters? It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But Frank Cottrell-Boyce's first stage play, Proper Clever, manages to avoid all the cringieness of dads trying to text, uncle's using the internet and granddads dancing at weddings etc with refreshing ease. He seems to understand kids and even more remarkably, he seems to actually like them.

The Liverpool writer has devoted himself to youngsters across many forms over the years. The success of his collaboration with Danny Boyle for 2004’s film Millions was the pinnacle of an already impressive screen-writing portfolio including Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People. He has written God on Trial for television and has also produced three rave-reviewed novels for children.

Proper Clever focuses on a group of geeky instant-messaging obsessed friends: Bex (Samantha Robinson) and Rachel (Rhian Jayne Bull) who fell in love with reading through Harry Potter and, being in Year 10, they are in the process of saying goodbye to Dora the Explorer, Angelina Ballerina and Tracy Beaker. Budding film-maker Patrick (Adetomiwa Edun) has been silenced by a spiritual experience in Pwllheli, while the astronomy-obsessed Mathew (Adam Gillen), who puts his ginger-curls in to action brilliantly and gets the most laughs on the night, is well in touch with his feminine side.

Do-gooder Claire (Sarah Ozeke) and popular self-centred tart Riley (Ellena Stacey) battle it out as goddesses of wisdom and beauty and “Bex with an X, as in, the Factor” must chose which path to follow.

Cottrell-Boyce certainly isn’t afraid to let his creative colours flourish. Four plasma screens make an interesting addition to the stage, particularly in the scene whereby the screens allow the audience to see the frantic text messages that the friends are sending one another, despite being all sat in a row waiting for Shayne Ward to appear as Romeo in Romeo & Juliet. Although, as with the giant wall of TVs in Argos, it can be difficult deciding which one to watch.

The stage also frequently becomes a screen showing pixelated video clips courtesy of a giant projector. This is used effectively to illustrate the traumas that modern technology (and a bottle of vodka) can cause, as a video clip of Riley alone, publicly intoxicated, receives over 60,000 views on the internet. Designer Hannah Clark and Video Designer Ian Galloway deserve credit for the innovative incorporation of such material.

Cottrell-Boyce, father of seven, took inspiration from the Everyman Youth Theatre for the play’s characters and it shows in the script. The dialogue between the youngsters is comically accurate, not in the overtly funny way of the young scousers in Brick up the Mersey Tunnels but in a more subtle, witty way. You must have heard them at the bus stop; everything is proper boss or proper harsh or proper something-or-other-that-would-otherwise-sound-normal-or-god-forbid-boring. He’s not saying they’re stupid or wrong, he’s saying this is how it is.

It is precisely this that is so fresh about the play; its moral outlook. There is no corny framework defining what is right and wrong. At a certain age a child will become exposed to both good and bad influences but, despite the odd phase or temptation, they will come to their senses and more than likely end up just fine. It's only after the final scene that you realise how proper clever the play actually is.

You get the impression that Frank Cottrell-Boyce and a dedicated Playhouse team have a lot of time for young people, have enjoyed working with so many rising talents on this project and are keen to encourage more into the theatre. And so, some of the plays more arty moments can be forgiven in light of the aim to capture and inspire youth, hopefully having it fall in love with theatre.

Proper Clever is packed with innovative ideas and has a charming inventiveness for which Frank Cottrell-Boyce is so well known and regarded for. The be-good-to-the-kids-they’re-the-future overtones are a little strong in parts but it’s seldom the case that young people get a fair deal in the spotlight, never mind be praised in this way. We would all do well to relish the play’s positivity.


Proper Clever runs at the Playhouse until 25th October, for tickets call 0151 709 4776

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