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Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play, which revolves around a couple of days in the life of three affluent 1982 New York emerging-adolescents. Dennis is the drug-dealing owner of the apartment where the action takes place, who is taking a year out and mulling over whether to go to college. He bullies and domineers his best friend Warren, a much gentler soul, who arrives at the apartment with a suitcase containing $15 000 which he has stolen from his father. Dennis browbeats Warren into letting him borrow a large chunk of the money to buy cocaine, the theory being that they will immediately pass it on at a higher price, return the original sum to Warren's father, and split the proceeds. Later on, irony-free fashion student Jessica turns up; Warren takes a shine to her and hopes that his suddenly liquid assets will help him get her into bed.

That's the plot, such as it is. This is one of the best plays I've seen for years on the West End stage, and has the same kind of understanding of what it is to be young and pissed as J.D.Salinger or Douglas Coupland. The play's achieved a kind of renown as a star vehicle - the cast I saw had Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christiensen, and Anna Paquin, as Warren, Dennis, and Jessica respectively, and they've been followed by such famous names as Matt Damon and Kieran Culkin, among others - but that isn't really fair since it implies that they're only there for their fame. They aren't: all three were simply extraordinary. Every performance was note-perfect. Christiensen's Dennis could easily be almost monstrous, but the Star Wars star brought out an underlying vulnerabillity which makes the character far more interesting; Gyllenhaal was simply adorable, convincingly bumbling, sweet-natured, emotionally scarred, utterly naive and deeply troubled all at once; Paquin, hilarious and moving in her attempts at keeping control and deep uncertainty under such superficial ease, is one of the most supremely talented Hollywood actresses of her generation. Every review I've read of the subsequent casts has been similarly adulatory, though by all accounts the first production was the best. (So naturally I feel smug.)

But all of this is useless without a play - and what a play it is. Lonergan, Oscar-nominated for his original screenplay of You Can Count On Me, and the author of Lobby Hero and Waverly Gallery, as well as screenplays for Gangs Of New York and Analyze This, is a tremendously talented writer of dialogue, and every note rings true. Much more than this, though, he has a perceptive and humane understanding of what it is to be young and vulnerable and a little lost and a little less sure of yourself than everyone else seems to be. Though evocative of a very specific time and place - the Reagan/Thatcher paradigm shift in governmental world view is a constant backdrop to the piece - it is nevertheless universal, and will give anyone who has ever been young moments of recognition.

The most interesting thing about the play, perhaps, is that these characters are intellectually acute, articulate, perceptive people - and it doesn't really help them very much. They are still all, to varying degrees, fucked up. They are all, to varying degrees, clueless, and desperate to hide it: one of the funniest, and most touching, set pieces in the play is the mating ritual between Warren and Jessica. We've all been there, and the essential truth of tiny things like Paquin having to remove a hair from her mouth so they can carry on kissing root the work in a reality all of us instinctively relate to.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating 'This Is Our Youth''s profundity; I am, it's true, of the same age and same approximate demographic as the characters in the play, and it's only natural that I'd therefore have more moments of recognition than a 57 year old Austrian baker. But the audience I saw it with ranged hugely, as far as I could tell, in terms of age - refreshingly so, in a West End which increasingly seems only capable of drawing a youthful audience to throwaway popstar musicals - and the response at the end was remarkable: the nearest thing I've seen to a spontaneous standing ovation in London. So: if you possibly can, see this play. It won't change your life, but it'll make you aware that you aren't alone in the world, and it'll make you aware that it's perfectly alright not to have all the answers, and that some of the most interesting people are the ones who don't really know who they are.

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