Review: Before 30 at Theatre N16

Yesterday, someone I know helpfully pointed out that in a few weeks I’ll be closer to 40 than 30. And just like that, I went from looking forward to my 36th birthday to panicking about how quickly the years are flying past, when there are so many things I haven’t done yet. It’s not the first time this has bothered me, and it undoubtedly won’t be the last – which is why it’s reassuring to go and see a show like Before 30, and realise that I’m not the only one who’s freaking out.

Written and performed by Tom Hartwell and directed by Phil Croft, Before 30 is a one-man show about a Londoner called Chris. Chris has just turned 29. He’s single, living in a tent in someone’s garage, and the closest he’s got to his dream of being a chef is working for Deliveroo, which would be so much easier (and cheaper) if people didn’t keep nicking his Boris bike. Meanwhile it seems like everyone around him is getting married, getting jobs, having babies and buying houses, and his proudest achievement is – well, he’s not quite sure, to be honest.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

As Chris veers wildly (and in some cases literally) from one hilarious mishap to another on the road to his 30th birthday, his panic begins to give way to a much more profound feeling of despair. And it’s here that the play really hits home as it examines the damaging expectations imposed on us by society, family, friends – but most of all by ourselves. At the same time, it also makes the very valid point that success is a relative term; someone who appears to have it all according to my world view might be struggling to live up to their own very different ideal, and it’s not for me to judge how happy and fulfilled that person should be.

As in previous plays Flood, Contactless and You Tweet My Face Space, Tom Hartwell demonstrates his exceptional ability to take the 21st century millennial experience and portray it on stage in a way that’s both relatable and very funny. (There’s even a Friends reference; this is a writer who really knows his audience.) As a performer, too, he wastes no time building a rapport with his audience; he has us on side pretty much from the moment he climbs out of his tent wearing a pink Hello Kitty bicycle helmet and tries to sing Happy Birthday to himself. From here, the laughs come thick and fast as we get to know Chris and the array of colourful characters that make up his story – and consequently when events take a more serious turn, we’re sufficiently invested in both story and character to really listen to what he has to say.

Anyone who’s ever had one of those “why God why?!” moments – which I’m willing to bet is most, if not all of us at some point – will find something that speaks to them in Before 30, even if it’s just the comforting knowledge that it’s totally okay to not always feel completely in control of where your life is going. With that knowledge, too, comes the understanding – appropriately timed for Mental Health Awareness Week – that those around us might be dealing with their own issues, even if their Instagram suggests they’ve got it all worked out. 

Yet again, Tom Hartwell has produced a play that delivers on several levels – it’s thoroughly entertaining, frighteningly relatable, and has already inspired a lengthy workplace discussion about the horrors of getting older. Let’s hope the show gets a longer run in the future; it certainly deserves it.

This run of Before 30 is now over 😦 but keep an eye on tomhartwellactor.com or follow @TomHartwell88 for details of future work.

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