Sunday, September 8, 2013

HotForTheatre, 'Break': Praying For Bells

Project Arts Centre, Dublin Fringe Festival
Sept 7-8, 10-15, 17-21

My review of Break by Amy Conroy coming up just as soon as I take out my notes to signal the first sign of defense ...

Sent by bells to lessons and lunch, we carried schoolbags and wrote notes in the margins of our books. Scientific equations and literary quotes were dealt with the hope of being committed to memory (were they?). We stepped out into the corridor and traded the latest kicks and kisses of the place. You couldn't fuck up; the commentary there spreads like wildfire. There was no real sense of getting away or of becoming something new. But when you passed the staffroom door, curious of the people on the other side, you wondered how it felt to be them, to have control, until interrupted and sent by another bell.

It turns out that nobody beyond that door has much control at all, as revealed by Amy Conroy's new play.

Here we have a staffroom of teachers exchanging chat about cars, zumba and online dating, as well as the bureaucracies of who's booked the schoolhall and whose mother thinks their child should be in honours maths. One minute their pouring coffee and the next they're knocking on the window and issuing detention to students outside. Pushing paper, pushing students, and scrambling to respond to a tragedy: the suicide of a student, and questioning why none of them saw it coming.

The writing delivers some witted one-liners. "Das Auto", says enthusiastic Jan (Conroy) about the prospect of buying a new Volkswagon. "Das shite", responds cynical English teacher Margaret (Clare Barrett) who unfortunately can't get anyone to say her name properly. "Keep Mags and Carry On", is the most inspired dig that her students are circulating,

Perceptively, it shows how crossing the threshold into the staffroom doesn't mean leaving your teenage issues behind. Football coach Karl (the charmingly boyish Mark Fitzgerald) reflects on how he will always be in his mind 17 stone, 2 ounces. Conroy's prudent Jan, passing comment on the glowing girls in her class, reveals insecurities about her own beauty. And as vice-principle John (Damien Devaney) takes to the road in his up-to-spec Mercedes, we suspect he wasn't as untouchable back in his schooldays.

The art of it is to show how they are all institutionalised, and in trying to connect with the students after the tragedy of their classmate we see the dialect between the teachers who seek to make a difference and those who keep their head low in front of the schoolboard. They bring in hip hop artist Kelly (wildchild Elayne Harrington) to work with the students to express themselves.

Director Veronica Coburn instills some nice visuals. Watch as a shoot for a basketball hoop drops into the sweet notes of music teacher Jeff's gentle piano playing (played by Tom Lane), while Jan describes her frustrations with teaching the tragic student. It's these passages that are golden, where Conroy reaches in and writes the heart of her characters, all of whom played expertly by this talented cast.

It's Conroy's broadest play to date but also her most stretched. She carries the breadth of the education system and points to its weaknesses but the individual arcs don't resolve as clearly as they did in Alice I  and The Eternal Rising of the Sun. Crucial final points are expressed through dance and freestyle rap, attempting to empower the characters. But it's the use of softer monologues in the earlier sections of the play when we see Break at its most spiritual. Maybe, like Kelly's first impression upon entering the staffroom, that's a little "right" of me.

The broader creature is the system itself, kicked and screamed at by teachers trying to wrestle it to the ground. It truly breaks these people, and Conroy's play devastates when you realise that the system is on repeat - an unanswered prayer that the next bell will send you somewhere new.

What did everybody else think?

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