Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st February, 2012
This timely and topical play is set in an inner city comprehensive school. A black youth is prevented from marmalising a Turkish boy by a white teacher and so he levels a false accusation of racist abuse against her. The full weight of “procedure” is brought down upon her, impacting on her home life, her career, her relationships, everything. It is a nightmarish scenario. The youth is able to abuse the power afforded to him by political correctness; the situation escalates until he too is trapped. The youth’s version is backed up by his friends and cronies – some of them reluctant to support at first but then it’s peer pressure innit? They are no less trapped than the teacher.
Vivienne Franzmann’s script has authenticity written through it. The patois and lingo of the playground is captured to dramatic and also humorous effect. The group of kids is recognisable from schoolyards up and down the country – they are at turns likeable and bright but also bitter and disillusioned. The pack mentality depicted here gives the piece an almost wildlife documentary aspect! The lads strut, preen and posture, facing each other down. The girls are won over by a quick schmooze. It is orchestrated by Jason (Ryan Calais Cameron in a totally credible performance) the cock of the walk, bad boy. His home life is no bed of roses – the teacher allows him too much leeway because of what she knows of his background and he is therefore able to exploit the system to bring about her downfall.
As Amanda the teacher Jackie Clune portrays the idealistic do-gooding side of the profession, the eternal apologist and optimist. Her naivete is astonishing – perhaps her character missed the inset day on child protection procedures! As the net tightens around her, she eventually finds her idealism dented and ultimately destroyed. By the end she is no longer the woman she was at the start. Her cold shoulder when one of the kids (the excellent Savannah Gordon-Liburd) makes a plaintive apology demonstrates how much the experience has forced her to change.
The kids’ loss of their teacher is also the profession’s loss. The play shows how procedure and endless agencies that do little more than tick their own boxes, have ousted common sense from the process of child protection. Parents know their rights but take none of their responsibilities. The system is skewed against the teacher. Child protection is crucial, of course it is, but the play states in no uncertain terms that the way it is currently dealt with is of no help to anyone. Worse than that, it is damaging.
Tom Schutt’s set is a wire fence around a circular space. It is the playground but also a battleground, an arena in which the conflict is played out. Characters are caged animals, restricted by rules written and unwritten. Suicide or resigning from the whole process are shown to be the only ways out.
The cast is superb. I particularly enjoyed Tendayi Jembere as Chuggs and Hammad Animashaun as Jordon, providing comic relief. Ryan Calais Cameron is a simmering time bomb of pent-up aggression, frustration and also vulnerability. We are horrified by what his character sets in motion but he is no two-dimensional villain. We want the play to offer another way out for him.
Directed by Matthew Dunster, this is a lively, thought-provoking couple of hours and very much a play-for-today. I feel the issues presented will long outlive the street slang.