REVIEW: BEFORE 30 (Waterloo East Theatre) ★★★★★

Chris, a 29-year-old Deliveroo driver, laments the years that he has spent feeling misguided and unfocused. We meet this character aged 29, and as he blows the candles out on his cake, he sets himself a 12-month challenge: to get his shit together before the big 3-0. But what does this actually entail? What does success and one’s own self-worth amount to in 2019 – is it power? Wealth? Possessions? Milestones achieved? We witness a story told across 12 chapters – a string of events, conversations and realisations that question what it really means to have ‘made it’ by age 30.

Tom Hartwell is our frontman, as both actor and playwright. It quickly becomes apparent that Hartwell is an extremely eloquent performer, holding the stage and our attention single-handedly for an hour. The script is a cleverly-written crowd-pleaser from the get-go, with a stand-up comedy feel issuing witty observations on millennial tragedy and easily-digestible humour. The set comprises of a tent (Chris’ £500-per-month ‘rented accommodation’) and a variety of undelivered takeaway bags – fun, light-hearted and of course, a little pitiful. 20 minutes goes past and I wonder to myself if this is going to be the case for the duration – is the purpose of Hartwell’s work to merely entertain, or is it going to deepen or challenge us in some way?

My question is answered imminently, when our protagonist Chris reveals that he has previously struggled with anxiety and depression. Suddenly, the play is transformed, and we start to view it through empathetic eyes. Hartwell’s writing is uncomfortably relatable to my own thoughts and feelings on this subject, and I start to furrow my brow as I realise how much I sympathise with this character’s anxieties about his worthiness and place in society. I looked around the room and found a similar expression on everyone’s faces – a mix of people, of all ages. It appeared that the notion of success ‘before 30’ actually relates to a variety of ages and situations, with many people connecting to this sense of inadequacy that the character feels.

I particularly liked the socio-cultural awareness that Hartwell demonstrates in his scriptwriting. He openly highlights his privilege as a straight white male, acknowledging that in the context of mental health, he does not feel he should have anything to complain about – but recognises that his identity does not make him immune to mental health issues. This is a vitally important observation that will resonate with many viewers: anxiety and depression, and mental health issues in general, do not discriminate – your ethnicity, social class or other characteristics do not make you immune. One of the main purposes of ‘Before 30’ appears to be about encouraging individuals to open up about their internal struggles and to seek help in order to cope with them.

Using the character of Chris’ beloved grandad (described via visual re-enactments), the play draws attention to how it is illogical and unfeasible to compare ourselves to previous generations, and to focus on writing our own stories through a more realistic set of expectations.

Hartwell has produced a hard-hitting, emotionally provocative play that will tug on the heart strings of many a viewer. The main themes within this body of work – mental health, poverty, cultural and social expectations – are delicately and subjectively portrayed via one unique narrative. ‘Before 30’ succeeds in delving deeply into the seriousness of undisclosed mental health issues, whilst still managing to finish on an uplifting, hopeful note that will leave a lasting impression on its audience.

Reviewed by Laura Evans


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