The League of Youth Review

Theatre N16 9 – 18 August.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Ashley Pearson’s energetic update of Ibsen’s play for Riot Act transfers the action to the UK in modern(ish) times – talk of investing in the world wide web, and excitement over the Eurotunnel are gently riffed.

It’s the Christmas party at ice wholesalers Norway, Inc. (A nice price for a bag of ice), and the drunken revels are interrupted by newcomer Sten Stensgard, fresh from the Dublin branch. Reading the mood of the room after a badly received speech praising the ex-CEO, Henry, he is soon rabble rousing and declaring “the death of prevailing office politics”, forming The League of Youth with the disgruntled staff. Sten’s reputation as a “politico” has proceeded him and Henry agrees to a meeting. Sten has soon charmed Henry and changes tactics in his quest for power. Niall Bishop is horribly believable as Sten, switching from twinkling eyed charm to viciously threatening in the blink of an eye. The killer moment is when, surrounded by the entire cast screaming at each other in various arguments, Bishop sits down coolly, adjusting his cuffs and gently smiling as he admires his work.

Director and designer Whit Hertford’s set is simple and effective, with furniture arrangements demarcating different areas, and lighting changes as certain areas are entered (although the strip lighting is proving problematic in the men’s toilets). The traverse staging adds to the intimacy of the piece, creating a feeling of gatecrashing the parties and making the louder confrontations much more uncomfortable. Whitford’s assured no-frills direction seems to have brought out the best in his cast, with natural and funny performances all round.

Pearson has kept the spirit of Ibsen’s play, but has made it fantastically foulmouthed and funny. The errant brother Erik is now a coke head layabout, and Jak Ford-Lane is enormous fun sneaking around numerous parties, smuggling bottles out with his partner in crime Dana (Sukh Kaur Ojla) like naughty schoolkids, and having a hysterical chat about wimples. The various marriage proposals Sten makes in the original are replaced with a business-like office quickie with a board member and a toe-curlingly funny declaration of love for the CEO.

Fieldbo’s final speech, delivered wonderfully by Sean Earl McPherson, does hammer home the play’s message rather heavy-handedly, but it is done with such charm that it doesn’t rankle. The pleas to overcome voter apathy, stop being swayed by rhetoric, disbelief at allowing unelected representatives to sit in positions of power, and the acceptance that “the electorate are not always trustworthy” all brought smiles of recognition to the audience’s faces, as did his call for a revolution that seemed highly unlikely. Just as in Ibsen’s time, the power of personality and empty promises are chillingly attractive to voters.

I was a bit dubious about sitting through Ibsen on a sunny evening, but this is a truly refreshing piece of theatre. Riot Act’s revamped League of Youth is funny, relevant and well worth seeing.