‘The superbly cast Scott Reid (Thomas) proves he’s still very much in-touch with his inner 16-year-old gobshite.’
We enter to find a typical classroom. The learning environment consists of teacher’s desk set before a blue background wall. The audience are in the round. Between me (on the far left, as ever) and the performance space is the actors’ door onto the stage. Beside the door are two clear boxes of universal props. These, together with the drama studies posters, tell us that we’re at the heart of Spud Control.
That pejorative is how the other teachers, them what teach grammar and sciences, describe Ms. Stone’s Drama department. It’s where the kids not unique enough to be special go to pass the day. Despite the condescension of the foreign language teachers, Ms. Stone hasn’t given up hope. She gives as much of herself to releasing the potential of pupils like Thomas as she once gave to her on-screen parts in Casualty, etc – ‘those who can, teach’ and all that.
Thomas has an important audition coming up and Ms. Stone is forgoing her Friday evening to coach him. As she teases out his inner Romeo the teacher/pupil relationship blossoms into a thorn-bush.
Johnny McKnight’s script is as packed with sweet and sour flavours as one of the Warhead Candies me and the other school spanners shared behind the bikesheds. At first you’re watching the introductory moments of a Naughty America porno – young guy being beguiled by a sexy older teacher – then the tables are turned, you can’t remember who’s exploiting who, and by the end everyone feels nice and dirty.
“No teacher would allow such a situation”, cluck a gaggle of mortar-boarded, Easter-happy schoolmarms within earshot. Despite the suspension of professional realities, McKnight insists we must experience the unfolding emotional manipulation as prescribed. Society’s moral certainties are not up for discussion. Unlike Glen Chandler’s Fringe ’13 landmark adaptation of Sandel, and more like A Play For September of the same year, McKnight’s script closes off the audience’s options for moral self-determination.
Even so, director Amanda Gaughan gets serious mileage out of the railroading. You could cut the tension with a metaphor. It’s been ratcheted up as though for a tyre change on a fleet of Hummers. Anita Vettesse (Ms. Stone) compellingly combines sensitive charm with dramatic flair. She is so real and really something. The superbly cast Scott Reid (Thomas) proves he’s still very much in-touch with his inner 16-year-old gobshite. Reid’s genius is to hint at the man Thomas is becoming as much as to lampoon the boy he is. Vettesse and Reid demonstrate active and reactive character work of the highest order.
Dani Heron’s finely carved cameo as Carly, Thomas’ girl, replete in skimpy schoolgirl outfit, allegorically illustrates that this cast is overdeveloped for the limited material allowed in the time available. Until Heron bursts in, you might be forgiven for worrying you’re stuck watching theatre about theatre – isn’t the Alexander Technique hilarious?
‘Actors only exist to serve the script’ agrees everyone when only I am allowed to speak. But there are times when the script must play supernumerary to stellar performances, and this is one such. Yet there’s no doubt McKnight knows how to bring the funny; the three-way with Heron especially could teach Catherine Tate a thing or two.
In the hands of this cast and director this script deserves a second half. Presently Ms. Stone’s crisis point is absent. It’s not clear where she eventually found her courage. Could it have been from imagining Thomas’ true treatment of Carly, with whom she might have more in common that she’d care to admit? There isn’t time to tell.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 April)
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