It’s the summer of 1997. Charlie Lewis is neither a likely nor a willing thespian, particularly not when the subject at hand is Romeo and Juliet. But in the languishing days post-GCSEs, the 16-year old is desperate for anything to help wile away the hours. So that motivation is, in part, how he finds himself accidentally joining the Full Fathom Five theatre co-operative, an Art’s Council-funded initiative to get more young people involved in theatre.
It’s not one of Charlie’s usual pastimes – more used to the company of three typical teenage boys who spend their time together rough-and-tumbling and drinking cheap alcohol mixed with aspirin. But to be in the presence of the beguiling Fran Fisher, playing the eponymous Juliet, almost any degree of humiliation is worth it.
Suspended in the space between finishing school and waiting for the rest of your life to start, Charlie’s summer isn’t as carefree as it should be. His parents have been through a calamitous divorce and he lives alone with his Dad, who is unemployed and sliding into an ever deeper, alcohol-fuelled depression. Certain that he’s flunked his exams and destined for a life of failure, Shakespeare and Fran come into his life at the opportune moment.
‘The beginning and the end, the anticipation and the despair, that’s where the story lies, but the state of being in love, and in particular of being young and in love, is like listening to someone describe their parachute jump or bizarre dream, the blurred photograph of a life-changing performance, taken from too far away.’
Nicholls writes with compassion and insight, exploring the pains and profundity of first love without sugarcoating it. We hear from another Charlie, twenty years in the future, and so all along know that this first love is, of course, a love that won’t last. The intrusion of this older, wiser voice adds depth and intelligence to the narrative.
It’s deeply nostalgic, and with ten years having passed since my never-ending post-GCSE summer, I found this especially heightened. But it’s never saccharine, and we understand (and recall) too that being sixteen is essentially pretty terrible: the awkwardness, the ennui, the pressure of ‘the rest of your life’ looming in front of you. However much we may think we’d long to return to that period in our lives, Nicholls reminds us, in his trademark way, of the sweet sorrow that young love brings.