Teenagers have helped shape a new play at the Theatre Royal. Its creators tell Emma Beaumont of their surprise at the class divisions they found in York
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Ask.fm, and reality TV. These are the new social ills of society. Amorphous, unstoppable entities that are corrupting youth, or so traditional media outlets would have you believe.
But what impact are they actually having on the lives of young people in York? A new show premiered in the Takeover Festival at York Theatre Royal, began with that question.
The Only Way is Chelsea’s tells the story of 14-year-old Chelsea from Acomb. Her life is a mess, but she plans to turn it around by starring in her own reality drama on YouTube.
Writer Frazer Flintham and director Jane Fallowfield (creative director of Root Theatre) set out to create what they think is “an honest exploration into what it is like to be 14 and living in York”.
To give the play authenticity the pair conducted workshops in York schools and held discussion groups where 14 to 19-year-olds shared their thoughts, fears and experiences.
From this they learned how young people feel about reality TV and the blurring effect of “Facebook fame” on their expectations of life. One Year 10 student described the experience as “phenomenal”.
For Frazer and Jane, the research was essential to the evolution of the play, with voiceovers from the teens even making it into the performance.
Both Londoners, Frazer and Jane were surprised by what they found while working with local youngsters. “One thing that’s quite striking is the level of inequality in York,” Frazer said.
“You have these kids in Acomb feeling very disconnected from the centre of York, living a parallel life away from this middle class town.
“They don’t go out in York, they stay in Acomb… there’s just not that same level of separation in London.”
A character in the play attends private girls’ school Queen Margaret’s, to highlight the disparity.
In other hands, The Only Way is Chelsea’s could be a scare piece about the horrors of the modern teenage life. About how base society has become, worshipping plastic socialites, with little discernible talent.
Thankfully writer Frazer Flintham is ready to challenge received wisdom. He is fairly ambivalent as to whether being a teenager now is tougher than it has been previously. “Every generation has its challenges,” he says.
“Of course the internet has meant that there’s more opportunity for judgement, but in many senses kids are allowed much more individuality these days.”
While some aspects of the performance are tailored specifically to York, they feel a teen’s experience is fairly universal.
Jane says that “by focusing in specifically you can actually make a very big point”. The production may touch on social divisions in York, but the fascinating truth of reality TV is that it simultaneously confirms and yet transcends class boundaries.
E4’s Made In Chelsea solidifies this idea of a posh, bouncy haired, south London set – yet it appeals to the same group of people who are watching good-time girls in Geordie Shore or perma-tanned Ken dolls in The Only Way Is Essex.
Frazer’s inspiration for the play came when he began watching these pseudo-reality programmes which now clutter our TV schedules. He found them oddly addictive, a feeling many will understand. “If they have this effect on adults,” he says, “how interesting to see how teenagers react to them.”
Reality TV is a hot topic. Most media tells us it’s a vapid evil. What sets The Only Way Is Chelsea’s apart from this fear party is that it is shaped by the real lives of York teenagers. That seems worth a watch.
- The Only Way Is Chelsea’s is at the York Theatre Royal from Tuesday, October 15 to Saturday, October 19
- Tickets priced at £10 or £6 for students and under 25s
- For more information, see the Theatre Royal website