Birmingham REP at the mac, Birmingham, Thursday 23rd February, 2012
Set in a secondary school, Arzhang Pezhman’s brand new play tells the story of science teacher, David (Nigel Hastings) following his return to work after a long-term absence due to depression. David – Mr Milford to the kids – is enthusiastic about his subject to the extent that he bores on about it at every opportunity. The man never speaks of anything else. It becomes apparent that this is very much a coping strategy. He is unable to deal with the day-to-day details of his life so he keeps his head in the clouds – beyond the clouds, in fact.
The three students we meet on stage are a motley trio. There is loudmouth, class clown Reece (Boris Mitkov) with the Adidas logo shaved into the back of his neck. He is the most exaggerated of the three, a caricature of every child who ever ate up and spat out a supply teacher. There is Chantay (Rebecca Louden) who might get somewhere in life if she could only remove the mobile phone from her hands. Finally, there is Kyle (Ashley Hunter) the most sympathetic of the three, a lad with some kind of syndrome. He can’t get enough science. He attempts his own version of Schrodinger’s cat experiment with a shoebox and an unfortunate frog; and, worryingly, handles radioactive materials in the school physics lab.
Overseeing all of this is Kathy (Imogen Slaughter), a sickening example of the kind of Senior Management monster that is rife in schools today. She is all about appearance, gathering data and giving kids lollipops. She is insensitive and lacks understanding of the nature of depression. She has no time for the esoteric and no sense of wonder whatsoever.
Kathy “punishes” Reece and bystander Chantay for Reece’s attempted murder of Mr Milford by putting radioactive chemicals in his coffee mug with a day’s team-building through the medium of abseiling. Incredibly, the Police are not brought in. The boy is not excluded. This is one example of the play’s stretching of credibility in order for the plot to happen. Conversely, and all too believably, good boy Kyle is fobbed off with a couple of photocopied certificates snatched from a filing cabinet. It is no wonder the lad goes off the rails. A chain of events, unstoppable as a nuclear reaction, is set in motion. Provocation from Reece – brought back into the classroom because Kathy doesn’t want the inspectors to see naughty children in the corridors – brings Mr Milford to the boil. When he sees Kyle indulging in some misbehaviour with a Bunsen burner, he reaches critical mass, drags Kyle into the supply cupboard and – next thing we know, the cops and paramedics have been brought in and Mr Milford is facing serious criminal charges. He is lost in his thoughts about the Large Hadron Collider – perhaps the discovery of anti-matter will make time travel possible? Perhaps he could go back and change…
The LHC crops up now and then as a metaphor for something or other. Mr Milford’s circling of the school perimeter, perhaps. The smashing together of personalities until disaster strikes. It doesn’t ring true, just like aspects of the plot.
Comparisons with the excellent Mogadishu, which I saw only two days prior to this, are inevitable. This one lacks authenticity in the kids’ patois. The language doesn’t flow as naturalistically and the situation at the core seems unrealistic. There is a Grange Hill earnestness to it all. I also found the invisible rest of the class somewhat awkwardly presented. Mr Milford remonstrates with people who aren’t there, looking sideways at them, telling them to be quiet when no sound has been made. This is not part of his mental illness but a way of suggesting a larger cast beyond the scale of this production. Less awkward would have been if he had directed his reprimands towards the fourth wall, as if the audience was sitting where the rest of the class would be. To me, this was a stylistic decision that didn’t quite work.
The performances are strong. In fact, they could be toned down a little in the quieter moments to accentuate the contrast when things kick off. Among an energised ensemble, Ashley Hunter impresses as Kyle, the good kid disillusioned with a system that favours the unruly and the unteachable. As the awful Kathy, Imogen Slaughter captures the tone perfectly, stalking around the stage in six-inch stilettos while upbraiding both students and staff for their standards of dress.
Fabrice Serafino’s set is versatile but I could have done without the assault of overly loud music bombarding the atoms of my eardrums with sound waves during the transitions.
The play shows the stressful nature of secondary school teaching, the pressures and the bullshit. It highlights a lack of understanding of stress-related depression. It seeks to be clever with its tacked-on (tachyon?) references to CERN, but Mr Milford is no Prof Brian Cox. His endless expounding and explaining fails to engage. When he finally blows his top, I found it difficult to give a quantum of a toss.