New Theatre, W.A.Academy of Performing Arts
Reviewed by Neville Cohn
In a program note, playwright Chris Edmund points out that the genesis of his newest play was an old-boys’ school reunion he’d attended in London two years ago.
It is a stunning achievement, a disturbingly articulate resurrection of the pain and anguish that so many would have experienced during years at high school.
A cast of sixteen do wonders in a production that deserves the highest praise for the way in which it has overcome what must have been a most challenging logistical exercise, with the cast breathing life into 34 roles. Certainly, rapid costume changes and the need to abandon one persona and adopt another in seconds were object lessons in how to do this sort of thing well.
This unsettling theatre experience is not for the squeamish although to place things in perspective, the events, set in a Hertfordshire school, even at their worst, can hardly be compared with, say, Dickens’ appalling Dotheboys Hall.
But it will certainly be disconcerting theatre for those whose expectations of a play about English school life derive from the absurd blandness of, say, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books or the school-centred stories carried by weekly editions of Girl’s Crystal and Champion papers in the 1950s. Before I Get Old is light years away from the superficial folderol that is Blyton’s twee school world.
On the contrary, Edmund’s play is the essence of gritty realism.
Edmund took what I’d imagine was a calculated risk (that pays off impressively) in presenting what is, in effect, a highly episodic offering, a fast-paced string of vignettes with snappy dialogue that touches on more than the school experience (which in any case does not function in a vacuum).
I cannot imagine anyone who might have attended a state-run high school (or any school for that matter), whether in Australia or abroad, failing to identify with at least some aspects of a play that reveals the uglier side of the educational experience. Certainly, it is often very close to the bone.
Although the action centres around a school in the early 1950s some 35 miles north of London, the play’s themes are universal and timeless and that is what makes it such a powerful offering.
With singular skill in articulating the upheavals of adolescence and the selfconscious awkwardness that comes in its train, Edmund, sparing nothing, shows us the fraught and fragile nature of the teenage psyche.
Through what might be described as a series of flashbacks, Edmund reveals all this and more with a compassion and insight that make for theatre of high order.
In less than completely sure hands, a play of this nature can so easily descend into embarrassing bathos. Not here. Consider, for instance, a vignette set in a rear row of the local cinema. With its sweaty, clumsy gropings and a literally vomitous moment (unwise drinking under age?), it encapsulates part of the teenage rite of passage with an unerring touch.
Edmund’s play casts a wide net. Who are more sensitive to the behaviour of family, parents in particular, than teenagers? And here, too, Edmund’s spot-on explorations of sometimes heartrending familial dilemmas – parental and sibling illness, alcoholism, problem gambling – make an indelible mark. So, too, do scenes that focus on the at-times unintentional cruelty of schoolmates – and on the vulnerability and need for acceptance by peers that is so often masked by desperate bravado.
In an ensemble piece of this nature, where teamwork is of the essence, it is perhaps invidious to single out individuals – there were no weak links in this cast – but it would be ungracious not to particularly mention Richard Flanagan (right) as the hapless Conger. Balaclava-clad, and with a striking resemblance to, of all people, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, Flanagan gave a striking performance as a gawky student not always keeping pace with his peers.
As both playright and director, Edmund has scored a triumph. Nothing so justifies the existence of WAAPA’s theatre course than a production of this quality. It deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.
Copyright Neville Cohn 2006