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Saturday, 5 February 2011

Theatre - Mogadishu - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 6/10

Vivienne Franzmann’s winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition is not set in Africa as the title might imply, but in the war zone of a London high school, fraught with undercurrents of violence and aggression that simmer very close to the surface. It needs a relatively young cast to play the students, and they are brilliant, portraying the horrors and pressures of their pressure cooker environment, and the feelings of directionless apathy in some of their lives that is heartbreaking.

The play tells the story of a bit of play ground bullying that goes horribly wrong. Jason, a black student who is picking on a nerdy younger Turkish boy, pushes his white teacher, Amanda, played by Julia Ford, to the floor when she comes to break up the fracas. But instead of informing her boss and letting events take their course for Jason following this double assault, she plays it down and does not want to make a fuss for fear of the consequences for him, which would inevitably be exclusion. And this for me is where the premise of the play starts to break down. It just does not seem plausible that a teacher would protect him in this way after he has assaulted her. The rather too convenient similarities in their life experiences, which are revealed near the play’s end, don’t really explain her actions either, seeming as they do to be a little too much of a neat co-incidence. But I won’t spoil it for you by giving them away.

Jason can’t admit to what he has done, and so concocts a story of racist abuse and assault by Amanda, in which his actions were mere retaliation. Worse still, he bullies and persuades his fellow students to go along with the lie. Again it seems implausible that he would be able to persuade everyone who witnesses the events to cover up for him so well.

The stars of the piece for me were Amanda’s daughter Rebecca, outstandingly played by Shannon Tarbet, who is also a student at the school, and so is doubly affected when her mum is suspended from her job as a result of the terrible accusations. Also Malachi Kirby as the manipulative bully Jason does a fantastic job of showing the frustrations and vulnerabilities of this complex brooding character.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, who also directed the fabulous, top rated (by me anyway) ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ here in February 2010, the action was fast paced and gripping, with clever use of all the actors to complete the dizzying scene changes from school playground, to staff room, to Amanda’s kitchen very well. And designer Tom Scutt's wire cage in which all the action takes place really helps to create that tense, aggressive hot house atmosphere.

But sad to say, amongst the impressive acting, was a flawed story, not just for it’s unbelievable premise, but also for its clichéd stereotypes – the white liberal teacher, the black bully. Only Amanda’s daughter Rebecca was portrayed with shades of grey, and she is a much more plausible and powerful presence for it. This is an interesting and brave play, but would have benefitted from a bit more nuance between the black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun – life is like that and this play would have been more impressive for it.

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