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Review: CHALKFACE at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review: CHALKFACE at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

A staff room's eye view of teaching today.

In a late career change, I gained a degree in Adult and Vocational Education, and then a post-graduate degree in Secondary Education, leading to several years of relief and contract teaching in music and drama for a number of high schools. I was, therefore, looking forward to State Theatre Company's latest production, Chalkface, a black comedy written by Australian playwright, Angela Betzien, produced in conjunction with the Sydney Theatre Company. One of their Resident Directors, Jessica Arthur, directed this hilarious co-production.

At the start, we see a staff room that seems to have suffered from many years of neglect. The paint at the tops of the walls is peeling. The furniture is a mismatched mixture of aging odds and ends. It doesn't appear to have had any attempt at maintenance or updating since the school was opened, probably long before most of the staff members were born. There is also, it seems, an inexplicable smell in the school. It is easy to extrapolate this to picture an entire school on the brink of collapse, including the teachers. Ailsa Paterson's detailed set design perfectly captures the feeling that nobody in the school really cares any longer, least of all about the teaching staff, now re-branded as "producers of human capital". Over 110 minutes, we look in on the teachers at pertinent intervals over an entire year of school.

It is the first day of term, and a new year, after the Christmas holidays, and a couple of the teachers arrive early. Susan Prior plays Denise Hart, the first to enter, engaging in a lot of very funny stage business before disappearing into the ladies' toilet with a pregnancy test in her hand. Her nervous edge is due to having been tricked, by the school's worst student, Hurricane Little, into entering a cupboard, being quickly locked in, and then left there overnight. Prior not only creates a wonderfully funny character, but marks the scene changes with some funny business, but you'll have to see that for yourself.

While Denise is still busy in the toilet, the next teacher arrives.
Catherine McClements plays Pat Novitsky, the longest serving member of the teaching staff, boasting 15 years as a successful teacher at West Vale Primary School. In her mid-50s, she is not yet ready to retire, much to the annoyance of "Principal 2.0", Douglas Houston, referred to by the staff as 'Thatcher', played by Nathan O'Keefe, who would dearly love to get rid of her. Once a guiding light, years of teaching and continuing degradation of the treatment of the profession, have left her jaded and bitter. McClements is the hub of the production, interacting wonderfully with each of the others, and making much of Pat's acerbic wit, biting tongue, and sarcastic edge.

Other teachers, we hear, are waiting in their cars, until entering the school can be no longer avoided. Next in comes Anna Park, played by Stephanie Somerville, the newcomer to teaching, starting in her first position. She is the holder of a Masters of Neuroplasticity and Child Behaviour, and was nicknamed "the child whisperer" at university. She is highly enthusiastic, idealistic, and full of modern ideas. She, naturally, immediately clashes with old-school teacher, Pat. Somerville presents Anna as a bright and bubbly young woman, immune to the warnings and anecdotes thrown at her by Pat, dismissing them like water off a duck's back. She creates a perfect foil for McClements.

Nathan O'Keefe, as Principal, Douglas Housten, also arrives at almost the same time as Anna, clad in lycra, and carrying his racing bicycle in one hand. It is clear that the teachers have no respect for this penny-pinching, bean-counting, corporate manager, who has long forgotten what it was like to be a teacher. O'Keefe brings a lot of laughs to his role, with much physical humour on top of the text.

Pat looks at her class list and discovers that the school terror, Hurricane Little, is in her class. Why anybody would name their son Hurricane is hard to understand, but it transpires that it suits him. She questions why he is there, as he was due to leave at the end of the past year, and the principal explains that it was decided he needed another year of social development. After much negotiation, with Pat trying to offload Hurricane onto Steve Budge, another of the teachers, the Principal eventually moves him into Anna's class, at her own request.

Ezra Juanta plays Steve, caught in the limbo of the worker's compensation system after sustaining an injury to his back, due to another trick by Hurricane Little. He has been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a decision to be made. He teaches physical education, but always wanted to be a dancer. Juanta adds his own physical comedy to the mix, with the occasional comical ballet steps.

The officious and suspiciously secretive Office Manager, Cheryl Filch, late of the corrupt banking industry, played by Michelle Ny, is a control freak, watching over the photocopier, busily shredding papers, and guarding the supply cupboard to restrict the use of the limited supply of coloured paper. Ny's characterisation gives us an uptight woman, appearing to be permanently bordering on panic, and making hilarious announcements on the public address system. Aside from the individual performances, and great explorations of the relationships between each of the characters, there is much very strong ensemble work at play.

Underlying the comedy, though, is a condemnation of the state of Australia's public school system, with unlimited government funding going to private schools for a new pool, building, sporting facility, or some other luxury, while public schools try to eke out their budgets over the year, and teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies. Nine years of a conservative government has been a disaster for education, and for health, with constant cuts to funding, and has left Australia with a trillion dollar national deficit. Private schools, however, did very nicely during this period because, of course, that's where the politicians send their offspring to be educated, ready to take their places in future governments. It is a case of divide and conquer, an attempt to ensure the highest standard of education for the elite, and to limit the education of the rest. Things must change, and quickly.

To say that this production is a laugh a minute, as they do in the advertising, would be a major understatement. There are numerous laughs to the minute, with very little pause to take a breath. It goes so far over the top that, at times, it begins to head down the other side, leaving the audience in hysterics. Be sure to get tickets.

Photography, Matt Byrne.

Regional Awards

From This Author - Barry Lenny

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