Adults: how a sex play about boomers v millennials brings both together

Kieran Hurley’s new play Adults brilliantly illuminates an intergenerational clash that should leave boomers (born between 1945 and 1964) and millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) in the audience with a little more empathy for each other.

It all starts entertainingly when a strawberry milkshake bursts open in the face of Iain (Conleth Hill) just as he arrives early at the flat of thirtysomething Zara (Dani Heron). Zara is a sex worker who runs her business from home “collectively and ethically”.

Iain, in his 60s, married with two grown-up daughters, is completely out of his comfort zone and there to have sex with a young man: Zara’s business partner, Jay (Anders Hayward), who is running late.

As Iain wipes the pink goo from his face, Zara recognises him as her former teacher Mr Urquhart. And so Hurley sets up his character triangle. For the next 80 minutes, the audience has the pleasure of watching Zara, Iain and Jay argue with, blackmail, and eventually simply hold each other across the generational divide.

The spat between boomers and millennials has been rumbling on for the last few years, pitting the former against their children’s/grandchildren’s generation who are viewed as whiny, lazy snowflakes with an overinflated sense of entitlement.

Conversely, millennials view boomers as the generation that took everything, ruined everything, and have left very little for those who came after. As journalist David Barnett has succinctly pointed out:

Boomers live in the past and have ransomed the future. Millennials fear the future and are ignorant of the past.

Envy, resentment, misunderstanding

Disappointed expectations and repressed resentment bubble up during Zara’s and Iain’s initial confrontation, which plays out in her small one-bedroom flat while she matter-of-factly turns her living space into a brothel, replete with dildo collection (set and costume design: Anna Orton).

Zara, a literature graduate now earning money through sex work, begrudges the older generation their safe careers and settled lifestyles, and resents her teacher for instilling in her the bogus belief she could do anything with her life. Iain, meanwhile, feels trapped and envies the younger generation their seeming freedom, abandon and sexual confidence.

Both are deliberately ignoring the fact that the object of their envy is a fantasy. Iain is oblivious to the fact that the carefreeness of the younger generation (the young men he watches in his videos) is largely performed for a capitalist market that values only these qualities.

Zara’s resentment, meanwhile, doesn’t take into account that the apparent safety of her teacher’s generation came at the expense of not pursuing other, maybe more exciting or fulfilling alternatives.

Their debate treads the familiar territory of millennial precarity versus boomer affluence, but is nonetheless supremely entertaining. Spontaneous applause rewards Zara’s viciously eloquent takedown of Iain’s cherished memories of reading his kids Thomas the Tank Engine, which, according to Zara, is simply “pseudo-imperialist nostalgic colonial nonsense … some big nostalgic cry-wank for a lost idea of Britain”.

However, once Jay arrives, with his infant daughter screaming in the pram, the stakes are raised considerably. While Zara berates him for bringing his daughter to work, he insists that she owes him money, thus revealing her talk of an ethical and “non-hierarchical business practice” as hypocritical.

Jay needs money to secure shared custody of his daughter. And when the little one finally goes to sleep, he puts all his expertise into performing the willing, lascivious little “twink” to seduce the inhibited Iain and earn his money.

Comedy and tragedy

Hayward and Hill (who played Varys, Master of the Whisperers, in Game of Thrones) excel in this seduction scene that alternates beautifully between moments of physical comedy and verbal exchanges that reveal profound sadness. Hill’s Iain, a sexually inexperienced older man who has never explored his desires, gradually develops into a tentative, then enthusiastic punter who enjoys roleplay – only to revert to the condescending, middle-class teacher who judges Jay for how he earns his money and is scathing about his parenting.

Hayward’s Jay writhes seductively on the floor, performs the invested listener and works his literal butt off, but draws the line at being insulted. When he vindictively posts a compromising picture of Iain on Facebook, the secrets that Iain and Zara have kept from their families are revealed.

Roxana Silbert’s confident direction lets the play text breathe and leaves room for her actors to insert some well-timed physical comedy – Hill sliding/falling off various bits of furniture hits the spot every time.

In the end, Iain, shocked but also relieved that he has nothing more to lose, comes clean to his wife in the face of his very public outing. The humbled Zara acknowledges in yet another reference to children’s literature, this time The Lorax by Dr Seuss, that she just might be a “Once-ler” too – meaning to “accept that the world you’re passing on is in a worse state than when you inherited it”.

Before the lights go out, we see Jay, the overwhelmed millennial father, lying on the bed holding the sobbing Iain, while offstage the voice of his crying baby clamours for attention to the coming generation.

With Adults, Hurley, a millennial author himself, seems to appeal to his own generation to let go of their rage, be more understanding of their elders, and accept that, one day, they too will to be blamed for the future. Because as it turns out, confirms Iain: “Everyone always grows up thinking it’s the end of the world.”

Adults is showing until August 27 at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ann-Christine Simke is affiliated with the theatre company Stellar Quines. She is a member of the board for the company.