You're not swinging any more

A timid production fails to capture the tension and the thrill of 1950s London

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Liam Steel's stage version of the Colin MacInnes cult novel Absolute Beginners starts confidently. A flashgun illuminates a set of tableaux showing that we are back in the London of 1958, when pop music and the word "teenager" were invented, and the notion of marrying and settling down was rejected by an entire generation more interested in mopeds, coffee shops, sex and jazz.

Youth, as represented by Photo Boy (Sid Mitchell), is bored by the Bomb, the Queen and national service. He is determinedly apolitical, and wants to make his way in the media. He certainly isn't interested in hanging around his home, where Mum (Rachel Sanders), a Babs Windsor-alike in a platinum wig and housecoat, is busy shagging the Turkish lodger and where Dad (David Sibley) is dying of emphysema. He is more interested in hanging out at the coffee bar, getting "perspective" on what's going on around his neighbourhood by taking photographs and trying to raise £500 for his sweetheart, Suze (Joanne Matthews).

Everyone spends a lot of time energetically (and, in some cases, rather nervously) jumping on and off Lizzie Clachan's ambitious set of white towers and moving rostrums, as if doing that would inject this show with the pure pop energy of the original text. Unfortunately, no matter how many lifts are pinched from the book, and how many times the energetic cast runs up and down a series of ladders, the overall impression is of a show that never really gets off the ground.

The whole thing is far too polite. Aiming to show the seething ferment of postwar London in general and the race riots of Notting Hill in particular, Steel choreographs a few Fame-style dance moves and includes a lot of talk about "spades". There is never any real sense of looming menace, or tension. The central characters are all rather strangely uninvolved in what is going on. They speak their lines correctly and use all the right slang, but the effect is somehow unconvincing. The only moment of genuine surprise and, judging by the roar of laughter in the stalls, true audience engagement, comes when Photo Boy's mother calls him a cunt. At last, a realistic glimpse of everyday London life! But it is the only one.

It's not even that the cast is saddled with playing stereotypes: the black jazz cat, the white Teddy boy, the flirty tart. Dirty Dancing is full of stereotypes. Quadrophenia was full of stereotypes. Grease is nothing but a glorious stereotypical parade. Yet London productions of all these shows have succeeded in portraying a certain view of an exact moment in history, because the cast fleshed out their ciphers with a sense of conviction.

In the second half, Steel, perhaps realising that he has a cast which, Sibley apart, doesn't seem all that interested in acting, throws everything he can think of at the stage in a desperate attempt to hot things up. As such, we rattle through a host of currently fashionable theatre effects, including dry ice, a bit of live television, more dancing and fighting, a few video screens and a load of photomontage, all this in addition to Soweto Kinch's continuous, fluid jazz score.

Paradoxically, the harder everyone tries to portray 1950s London, with its prejudices, enmity and fighting in the streets, the further away the night moves from it. "Tell it as it is," pleads Photo Boy's boss with him at one point, but, failing to find a language that conveys the burning heat of the MacInnes original, this well-meaning show does anything but. It was something of a relief when the curtain came down and we could all escape into the bustle of Hammersmith, and feel the real verve of London.

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Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?