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Burn, Chatroom
National Theatre (Cottesloe), London

Rhona Foulis
posted 30 March 2006

Seeing these plays isn't quite like any other theatre experience at the National. For one thing, half of the audience is made up of teenage school kids, who have come to see the plays they staged at school, through the NT Connections scheme, being performed by professional actors. At last this theatrically undernourished young audience can identify with the imaginative world on stage. Both Deborah Gearing's Burn and Enda Walsh's Chatroom seriously invest in the experiences of young people, giving centre stage to their subjects. Patronising chavvy stereotypes are left at the door as we enter an electric night at the Cottlesloe, generated by director Anna Mackmin's extraordinary ensemble cast.


Something has happened to Linda; something compels Birdman to care for her. Their relationship provides the impulse and dramatic intrigue for Gearing's play. Foster child Birdman (Joey) seems obsessed with Linda, more than just fancying her. Birdman is the pivot around which the action spins; it's his story, but he shares it with his classmates and friends. Linda's younger sister, Sal, watches Birdman and Tom hanging out together from her not-so-private perch. Rachel is dating Niall, even though he takes advantage of her; Birdman asks her why. Escaping the estate, Linda and Birdman discover a hiding place, a squat; Linda wants to be locked in the fridge as time out from the world. They drive on, over the bridge, and crash; at the very moment their relationship lives, 'Birdman flies', dies.

Gearing has written a story, not an issue-based play. It's a story about youth, about the transition between being caged and discovering and testing your own freedoms, selfhood and relationships. Through both structure and language, Gearing empowers her teenage characters by giving them a separate sphere, a sealed community. She avoids re-producing street language and writes a new dramatic dialect that her young people can claim. It takes a while to attune the audience ear to the rhythmic verse and unconventional sentence structure of this dialogue, but in performance the language is strikingly potent.

Each principal character is afforded his or her own scene, in which we hear their inner monologue commenting upon their actions and thought processes. Although the plot twists into its central focus on Birdman, Gearing shares out the narrative, by first allowing each character his/her own voice and story. Mackmin's staging, too, creates a strong sense that this a group of young people that guard and try to protect each other. At the start of Burn, the entire cast confronts us from a raised platform at the back, where they remain like a chorus throughout the play, focusing the drama and humming and strumming music at certain intervals, to punctuate the action. This pulse of energy tightens the pace and connects the company in this impassioned play. In the absence of parents and teachers, in their own world, the teenagers watch over one another as they crash and burn.


The surprising sound of the buoyant Oompa Loompa song from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the humorous discussions of Chatroom's opening scene, belie the heavy subject matter that later emerges. In the Harry Potter Chatroom, William and Jack argue over the function and value of children's literature. Cynical William sees J K Rowling as the enemy in a conspiratorial literary industry that simplifies life into fantasy for children, in an ideological effort to keep them passively young. Jack thinks children should be free to imagine and dream. William laments that teenagers used to be revolutionary, but now 'We're all clichés'. In the Britney Spears Chatroom, Eva and Emily debate whether the pop diva, 'not a girl, not yet a woman', can be regarded as a spokesperson for their peer group. Eva considers the Hit Me, Baby video as insidious paedophilia (and before you wonder, no, this isn't a didactic play about child porn on the net). Meanwhile in the Teenage Suicide Chatroom, young counsellor Laura listens to Jim talk about his depression and troubled relationship with his family, after his father left them when he was six. Finally, they all meet (except Laura, drafted in later) in the Angry Teenagers of Chiswick Chatroom.

The chatroom is established as a safe and neutral space; no-one knows each other, no-one uses their real name and people move fluidly from room to room (at one point, William asks to speak to Jack in private, in the Kylie Room). But there are gatekeepers of the chatroom, like surrogate parents, claiming border control. William seizes upon Jim's desperate case - 'He's ours' - and turns him into the cause of the chatroom, satisfying aimless William's need for purposefulness. Having expelled Jack and Emily from the chatroom, 'the only people [Jim] has are two strangers', and William and Eva sinisterly manipulate his dependence upon them. What begins as a friendly ear turns into indirect abuse, as the duo encourage Jim to commit suicide publicly, as a statement on the disolution of today's youth.

The craft of Walsh's play is in manipulating his audience, too, who originally sympathised with all five e-chatters. Walsh sets a context for their manipulation that explains, but does not excuse it, and offers an alternative. In Mackmin's production, dozens of school chairs are dotted around the stage at opposing angles; characters speak out in a vacuum, with no consciousness of their resonance. However, at the end, Walsh shows the hope in confrontation, openness and truthfulness, which his characters can find for him/herself. Jim delivers a monologue to the audience, the first time any character has directly faced us, and eventually shares his deep-rooted feelings about his estranged father. Some of Jim's language comes over as dramatic exposition or social instruction - 'You shouldn't be made to grow up so fast'; 'I just wanted my childhood back' - but Mackmin dramatises the power and importance of direct communication. Finally, Jim turns to talk face to face with Laura, breaking through the e-communication barrier between them.

Matt Smith (previously seen at the Cottlesloe in On The Shore of the Wide World) and Andrew Garfield must be especially commended amongst an impressive rep of young actors. Mackmin elicits strong focus from her cast, doing justice to these powerful, funny and poignant plays of our time. As Enda Walsh says of the NT Connections scheme: 'It's not theatre-in-education, it's theatre… there's something right about it: kids in a room pretending to be someone else, telling a story'. The Connections transfer to the National holds up these plays as theatre for everyone, and there's something very right about that indeed.


Till 3 June 2006 (running as Burn, Chatroom, Citizenship - two of three most nights)


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