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REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System

CHALKFACE

REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System

Saturday 17th September 2022, 7:30pm, Drama Theatre Sydney Opera House

Angel Betzien's CHALKFACE challenges the flaws with the public education system with hilarious black comedy. Presented as a co-production between Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company South Australia, this new work captures the realities with precision while presenting some hope that even the most jaded educators still have some of the spark that inspired them to enter the profession.

REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System
Catherine McClements in Sydney Theatre Company's Chalkface, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

Set in the run down staffroom of West Vale Primary School, seasoned teachers are returning to the coalface, or more appropriately CHALKFACE, for a new school year. First to arrive in the morning is the anxious and vague Denise (Susan Prior), a woman somewhat detached from the challenges the other teachers face as she deals with youngest pupils, but she has more than enough of her own to keep her distracted from the staffroom politics. Sporting an injury inflicted by a student, Steve (Ezra Juanta) has gone from being a child bullied by other children to being an adult bullied by his pupils' parents, living a life in perpetual fear and therefore not really focused on much more than the belief that he's being stalked. In contrast, veteran teacher Pat (Catherine McClements) is much more aware of what is going on around her but her passion for the vocation has dwindled after years of battling with system that seems more interested in budgets and corporatizing the education system supporting its staff. She's up against a school administrator that is on a power trip, rationing out every bit of paper while she gleefully staples more signs to the notice board and delivers ill-thought-out announcements over the PA system, but Cheryl (Michelle Ny) is nothing compared to the school principal, Douglas (Nathan O'Keefe), a man that has confused the education system with a corporate commercial enterprise. Thrown into the mix is the fresh faced 20 something Anna (Stephanie Somerville), a recent graduate with a mind filled with theories but little experience beyond the student teacher placements during her studies. Anna still has a belief that no student is beyond help and with implementing the techniques covered in the lecture halls she can breakthrough to even the most challenging students, including the infamous Hurricane Little, a child that Pat is trying her best to offload from her class.

REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System
Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville, Catherine McClements and Nathan O'Keefe in Sydney Theatre Company's Chalkface, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

Designer Ailsa Paterson draws on the reference within Anna's dialogue to the dilapidated buildings where nature has subsumed the man-made structures as the paint peels off the walls of West Vale Primary School and everything is old and worn out. In addition to the essential elements of the teachers' retreat from the classroom, from communal tables to eat or work, pigeonholes of memos and mementos, comfortable chairs and a kitchenette, there is a wonderful degree of detail like the game of 'hangman' on the chalkboard, signs on the noticeboard and indications that this is a contemporary, post pandemic timeframe. Costuming conveys the character traits with easy stereotypes and the incorporation of book week allows for some inventive ideas.

REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System
Stephanie Somerville and Catherine McClements in Sydney Theatre Company's Chalkface, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

The work centers on Pat and Anna, contrasting the women at different 'ends' of their teaching careers. Catherine McClements ensures that Pat is presented with an honesty and depth that conveys that while she's exhausted from battling with the system that doesn't really care about setting the West Vale children for more than menial jobs, deep down she still remembers why she entered the profession. Stephanie Somerville's Anna is attempting to be larger than life as she tries to make her mark, reinforcing a degree of futility in her ambition against a system that is more driven by dollars than educational achievements. While McClements representation of Pat's dark humour is fast and natural, Somerville ensures that Anna's awkward energy is more calculated and considered as she tries to win over her colleagues.

REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System
Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville, Ezra Juanta and Catherine McClements in Sydney Theatre Company's Chalkface, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

The rest of the characters are presented more in service to Pat and Anna's story and Betzien has therefore sketched them lightly, each with a singular focus and not much more. There is good physical comedy from the ensemble as they draw out the satire of the work whilst calling out the flaws in the public education system that often feels like it is setting students up to never rise above their current socio-economic situation.

REVIEW: CHALKFACE Goes Behind The School Staffroom Door For An Honest And Humorous Look At The Realities Of The Public Education System
Michelle Ny in Sydney Theatre Company's Chalkface, 2022. Photo: Prudence Upton

CHALKFACE is a delightfully funny piece of theatre that has many recognizable moments for those in any form of education system while also opening the door to the mysterious staff room that many have just speculated on.

https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2022/chalkface


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