Saturday, 18 April 2015

Review A Level Playing Field

A Level Playing Field

When TLT was a mere snip of a thing, exams came round once a year in stately parade and a timetable clash was unthinkable either in reality or in accounts of fictional schooldays in literature, film and TV.

Now TLT and her jolly jeep sidekick learn, according to A Level Playing Field, such clashes are commonplace and the tip of an iceberg in the Brave New World of mass higher education - with casualties.

As schools push kids in a lunatic drive for results, students not only have to swot for exams but suffer an “isolation” period to avoid cheating during a staggering of the exam timetable.

OK, it may not not quite be Steve McQueen (Senior) enduring the punishment block in The Great Escape prisoner of war camp. However,  according to playwright Jonathan Lewis, it does bear all the hallmarks of unwarranted punishment. Already over-stressed students, innocent of any misdemeanour, deprived of addictive  mobiles and computers, for the sins of exam timetabling.

A Level Playing Field, the playwright reports in the programme and elsewhere, is the first of three plays presenting A levels from the perspective of students, parents and teachers in schools characterised as “exam factories” in the quest for league table dominance.

Often rough-edged, the result of workshops with pupils, this may be an innovative interactive genre, a co-operative mix between the professional and the unadulterated voices of the subjects. All the students are played by non professional actors, each with the chance to take centre stage.

In the first act, an apparent  timetable staffing error leaves eleven all-white representative private school teenagers unsupervised in the "isolation" room, normally the music room.  Without an authority figure,  they are left to regulate themselves, almost like guinea pigs or white mice watched by the audience.  

Papered with cloned photocopied images of film star Nicholas Cage (Cage, geddit?!) "looking mental" as a school jape by  wannabe black, Aldous (Jack Bass), the room fills with a diverse set of pupils including Albanian immigrant Zachir (A J Lewis), swottish scholarship girl Bella (Eve Delaney), nervy  Johnny Hook (Jojo Macari), pot smoking Cal (Joe Taylor) and intense JJ (Christian Hines).

These are not the rebels of  the 1980s’ film The Breakfast Club but all of them, barely off stage during the entire pressure-cooker situation, are seeking coveted A* grades for entry to a top university.  

Meanwhile through open windows, we become, at first dimly and then clearly aware, that all is not well in the outside world.

Inevitably, reflecting the situation forced on them, they clash, while revealing their stories sequentially and interspersing the action with surreal monologue moments reflecting their psychic space.  It sometimes tips over into mouthpiece drama with obvious soap opera and literary cliché but there are also flashes of playful self awareness.

Nevertheless, it struck TLT perhaps an out and out satiric style might have introduced a more sharp edged varied pace, especially in the first act, with less shoutiness and schematic conflict.

Yet it’s the arrival of an adult authority figure belatedly in the second act with his own secrets which lights the dramatic fuse and overcomes the uncertainty of tone.  Also focussing the performances of other cast members, Joe Layton, star of BBC3’s Tatau, as young teacher Mr Preston, takes  the weight of the play on his shoulders, delivering a compelling,  precise performance. And directed by Chris Popert who also introduces video, put together by Roland Waters, more successfully at the beginning than the end, there are some neat visual touches, farce, moments of pathos and irony in the second act.

In the end, TLT and her sidekick, knowing all about exam pressure having to pass a yearly MOT ;), resort to a nineteenth century cliché to describe the play  – a curate’s egg. And it’s strangely apt, originating from a Punch cartoon where a humble young curate,served a rotten egg at the table of his Bishop but desperate not to offend theauthority figure whose patronage he needs, pronounces it “excellent in parts”. In other words, a little patchy but an amber light for an interesting experimental patchwork.

PS The class of 2015 stand and fall together so it seems only correct to name the rest of the cast: Rowena (India Opzoomer), Eleanor (Lydia Williams), Talia (Isabella Caley), Louis (Finlay Stroud) and Twink (Elsa Perryman Owens) who, if we did not imagine it, at one stage inserted a subtle impersonation of a certain famous politician.

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