Liz Vercoe reviews a subtle play at Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre
Zoe West and Tilda Wickham
"Okay, sit up you at the back. Pay attention. Stop chewing your hair, girl. You can all learn from this..."
That was then, when there wasn't a great deal of ambition at my Hertfordshire grammar-soon-to-become-comprehensive school. No one in what is now called year 10, except maybe a couple of would-be art school types, even had their eyes set on London, just 30 miles away. And that was a good school!
Add the glare of OFSTED inspections and take away any local job opportunities and, in this subtle play by Zoe Cooper, it adds up to the threadbare nowadays of teacher Claire's failing South Shields school. Newly arrived Claire, played magnificently by Lucy Briggs-Owen, is, well, very London: polite, wide-eyed at confrontation, more likely to say pedagogy than teaching (although she doesn't) but with a hint of steel when it comes to offering students an education that includes the excluded.
Backed, to a degree, by the headmistress, she's up against Brendan the long-serving former PE teacher who by dint of sheer survival is now head of science. Not quite flat-earth science but certainly the tried and tested variety. He's not one for new-fangled ideas and fully expects those who introduce them to retreat as surely as the tide of this bleak coastal town, just as all of Claire's predecessors have. And he's so sure that Claire is not what she seems he can almost smell it. This complex character is sympathetically brought to life at different times by all three members of the cast.
For with Lucy Briggs-Owen are Zoe West as her police-officer partner Kit and long-limbed Tilda Wickham as Fish, conjuring up various pupils and family members. In addition to their harmonious folk song introductions, the performances are injected with humour and rich with the tiny detail that brings the characters to life, a flick of a hand, a physical stretch, the slouch of an acned boy, a lean towards a loved one, a lean away...
Between the smiles, there is much to clutch at your heart in the lives of this troubled trio. Intelligent, belligerent, misunderstood Fish, who prefers to go by the pronoun "they", rather than she or he, is a child searching for a sense of place on this planet and is obsessed with being, at heart, a water creature, freed from the male-centric stories of evolution or religion. Responsible, reliable Kit, returning home filled with happy childhood memories plus a desire to raise a family away from the city, only to end up feeling utterly rejected by Claire. And then there is Claire herself, the one flapping and gasping for life support in an alien atmosphere, but not realising that it is her own self-acceptance that is the key to everyone else's purpose...and her own.
The play is a lovingly crafted reflection of current explorations of gender and sexuality and helpfully gives a severe kicking to any assumption that a small town means small mindedness.
But as presented here by director Guy Jones and designer Camilla Clarke it doesn't quite come off as a great night out, which is a pity. This is in part because of the utter bleakness of the set. Yes, loose and stained parquet on the floor and even the walls, conjures up underfunded schools and the ungentrified buildings of parts of the north. But when combined with the ultra-harsh glare of chevrons of neon tubes, of the sort that sucked all colour and pleasure out of early-1960s kitchens, it is like walking into a bleak rehearsal space not the theatre.
An aquarium does sturdy duty doubling as the ocean and computer screen, so should possibly also be given the pronoun "they" rather than "it" (so much is clever in this play of alter-egos and hidden selves it's hard to spot the simply serendipitous), but is not enough to improve the view from the stalls.
A final confusion in the script is also unfortunate: our young family suddenly start talking about sea temperatures rising, but to an audience by then on full alert for current cultural references, this proves to be a red herring.
Images: The Other Richard
May 10, 2019