views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Staffroom
Tristan Bates Theatre
20th August 2012

★★★☆☆

Being sent to the staffroom in secondary school was never like this. Stepping into the Tristan Bates space, the audience is invited to have a cup of tea or coffee, some biccies, and a poke around. It sets the stage for an inclusive atmosphere, casting the crowd as co-worker busybodies rather than voyeurs - a strand which continues throughout the piece.

There's nothing much in terms of a narrative, with the driving force simply being "a year in the life of a behaviour support school" and the unstructured and unpredictable trials and tribulations that can throw up. Inspectors, problem children and staff strikes are included and each scenario is very well observed, with the conflicting characters at the heart of the action.

The action in the claustrophobic, confined room is punctuated with a series of short tragicomic vignettes that go a good deal further to deepen individual characters. It's a nice touch and while it doesn't always cover the blackouts perfectly, as perhaps it was designed to do, they are delightful and witty, especially the between-lesson habit of cynical Deputy Head Alex (Nathan Thompson).

Continuing the inclusion, members of the audience were frequently called upon to play ancillary characters. This interaction produced some of the show's funniest moments, both in writing and through the reactions of the newfound actors. In particular, a scene in which harassed Ellen (Brede McDermott) gets a lift from a friend is at once hilarious, determinedly character-driven and utterly bleak thanks to writer/director Rachel Creeger. At the other end of the spectrum, a date between sweet but desperate Louisa (Karly Friend) and one lucky front-row male was brilliant for its pure cringe factor.

However, the actors shouldn't be afraid to go off-piste with the script and flex their improvisation muscles to draw out the awkwardness for all it's worth. On the openinig night, the characters seemed to be simply talking at rather than talking to and that was a great shame.

The accomplished cast are on the whole, incredibly strong, and really get to grips with the crisp naturalistic direction and script. It's hard to single any performers out, but Louise Morell's terrific understated turn as calm but weary Headteacher Diana hinted at a well of depth. Sophie Cartman as Sarah, Head of Pastoral Care is, was another wonderfully nuanced portrayal - compassionate and serious on the outside, but just as damaged as the more exaggerated characters on the inside.

The group did succumb to a couple of slips here and there, but covered well and these will undoubtedly diminish over the course of its run. And at times, the action felt a little stilted, with scenes clearly delineated between comedy and drama. They both worked very well on their own terms, but there was an inconsistency of laughs and tone as one broadly comic scene was placed next to a serious discussion about child abuse.

Even so, Staffroom should be applauded for attempting to produce a more immersive theatre environment, and a play that works on a number of levels for both teachers and laypeople alike.

Staffroom ran from 20th to 25th August 2012, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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