“It’s about Africa, then?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle on the way to the theatre. “No, I think it’s about a school” came my rather uncertain reply. In fact, the only reference to the capital of Somalia in the play is when the middle-class girl says that what sets her apart from the other scumbags is the fact that she knows where Mogadishu is. As it happens, she doesn’t; and in many respects she isn’t set apart from the other scumbags either. Not that the majority of them are scumbags. As you can tell, it’s not a straightforward business.
Vivienne Franzmann’s play is as gripping and exciting an unfolding of a story as you could possibly wish. From the very first scene you are hooked into its snowballing tale of racism, lies, bullying and justice. And you really have no idea how it’s going to end until the final three scenes tie it all up. This is her first full length play, having worked as a secondary-school teacher for twelve years. It shows. I cannot imagine how anyone other than a teacher would have the insight and authority to tell this tale in this context. I completely believed in it all the way through.
And, although the material in this play is very dark, it manages to be very funny too. It’s tightly written – not a word is wasted. Everything drives either the story or characterisation forward at a cracking pace. Its simple but effective staging emphasises the starkness of its reality, its people trapped in their lies. Co-produced by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Manchester Royal Exchange, it’s a credit to both of them.
One particularly interesting aspect of Tuesday’s performance is that the theatre was full of school students. When Mrs C and I saw them in the foyers we were desperately hoping they were seeing Stomp in the Derngate; but no, they piled into the diminutive stalls of the Royal. We just hoped they would have some adults with them to make sure they stayed shut up. We needn’t have worried. This play clearly hit home with the youngsters – they were captivated; and they learned a few interesting lessons about being in an audience. This play has some Ayckbournian laughter moments – by which I mean you witness something desperately awful, that means a personal sadness to someone in the play – but it is written so deftly amusingly that you burst into hysterical laughter. Then the laughter stops in your throat as you silence yourself with embarrassment; then people around you laugh at your reaction. That happened a couple of times during the play; the youngsters sounded appalled at what they had found funny; and it’s fascinating to observe.
I’m going to refrain from telling you anything about the plot of this riveting story because I think you need to see it for yourself. Let me tell you instead about its splendid performances. There are two characters right at the heart of this play. Jason, played by Ryan Calais Cameron, is the gang leader and thought by Amanda, the teacher played by Jackie Clune, to be more sinned against than sinning. You decide if she is right. Mr Cameron is perfectly cast – a natural authority with the minions who surround him, a tough bully to get his own way, wheedlingly affectionate (some of the time) with the girls when trying to coerce them against their will, yet instantly flinching and subordinate to his father Ben, played superbly by Nicholas Beveney. There’s a great scene where Jason starts out all cocky and mouthy with the unimpressed Ben, and who suddenly shrinks visibly as his father moves to dominate over him. Mr Cameron portrays the nature of the bully to great effect, both when they have power, and when their power is removed. Really good work.
Jackie Clune’s Amanda is the kind of teacher you would have liked to have had at school yourself – compassionate and caring, and with a clear sense of right and wrong. It’s fascinating to see her self-confidence and confidence in others slowly becoming eroded with the gradual realisation that she is no longer in control of her work issues. Just before the interval is a superb scene where her self-belief starts to ebb away and provides a tantalising cliffhanger moment to take you through fifteen minutes of deep discussion about the first half. You desperately want justice to go her way, but as it appears increasingly unlikely you get wrapped up in her emotional angst.
She is matched by her mouthy, troubled daughter, Becky, played by Rosie Wyatt, whom we saw as the troubled daughter Rose in Love Love Love last year – careful, don’t get type-cast. She gives another exuberant and painfully honest performance; once you brush away the hard defensive exterior of her character, her great vulnerability is exposed. And there’s a solid support from Amanda’s husband Peter, played by Jason Barnett, offering kindness and practicality, often to have it thrown back in his face.
James Barriscale’s Headmaster Chris gives a good account of a man already overworked and having to deal with an HR issue he really could do without, trying to be fair to all sides and having to fight against his personal views. His interview battles with Ben are powerfully exciting scenes. It’s very well written and staged.
The other playground kids are all also excellently brought to life. I really enjoyed the assured performance of Savannah Gordon-Liburd as Jason’s most favoured girl Dee; more mature than the other kids, more intelligent and most aware of the difference between right and wrong. Her scene at the end with Amanda where she tries to make some reparation was pitched perfectly and tugged really hard at any notion of forgiveness you might have left in your soul.
Another favourite was Hammed Animashaun as Jordan, the most carefree kid on the block, who gets some of the best lines and rises to the challenge of making the most of the humour in the play. The largely youthful audience really appreciated his characterisation and delivery. Tendayi Jembere played the rather dim but loyal Chuggs with sincerity and conviction, and Farshid Rokey’s Saif was the embodiment of chavtastic which somehow made his internal conflicts as to how much he was prepared to toe Jason’s line more painful and realistic. Michael Karim’s bookish Firat and Tara Hodge’s gormlessly gobby Chloe both added terrific support.
At the end, I think it’s fair to say that no one wins, but the whole story hangs together perfectly and all loose ends get tied up with great satisfaction. If you’re thinking of taking Granny, do be aware that this play has more four-letter words than a bunch of sailors delivering dictionaries. I don’t particularly care for unnecessary swear words, but they’re all totally in keeping with the characters and context.
A really strong performance of a really strong play that will make you think twice. You may come out of it a different person from the one that went into it; I love it when that happens. Touring till the end of March, definitely one to catch.