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  Chatroom / Citizenship
National Theatre (Cottesloe), London

Andrew Haydon
posted 13 September 2007

Being a teenager sucks. As part of their ongoing campaign to mitigate the suckiness of being young, the National have revived two Anna Mackmin’s acclaimed productions of two 2005’s Shell Connections plays: Enda Walsh’s Chatroom and Mark Ravenhill’s Citizenship. Each year the Connections project commissions ten plays from working playwrights which are distributed to schools’ drama departments and then staged in a kind of X-Factor contest with regional heats, with the winners transferring briefly to the National. It remains to Nicholas Hytner’s eternal credit that he went one step further; mounting three of 2005’s plays as professional productions.

Having not caught either play during their initial run, I was under the impression that Citizenship was the out-and-out success story, with Chatroom making a close second. On tonight’s showing, quite the reverse is true of the revival.

The set-up for Chatroom is simple: Jim, a depressed teenage boy, looks for solace and understanding in internet chatrooms. Frustrated by a Samaritans style chatroom’s refusal to give advice, he finds himself in ‘Chiswick’s Bloody Opinionated’ (changed from the original Cork) where the bored, iconoclastic ‘William’ (no real names in this chatroom) and ‘Eva’ make it their project to drive him to suicide.

In many ways, the imagined claustrophobia of an online chatroom makes a perfect setting for Enda Walsh. His script is, by turns taut, brutal, tender, surreal and very funny. What it doesn’t do, however, is make much allowance for the way that teenagers actually write or interact on the internet. The play makes no capital out of CAPS LOCKED MESSAGES (no pun intended) or the bewildering array of lols, rofls, lmaos and etc that pepper online dialogue. Instead we are given non-naturalistic youths with an almost preternatural gift for language, expressing themselves with a far greater degree of self-knowledge than one would think possible. There are tensions set up within this though - the audience can see past William’s posturing to the cold but callow boredom which verges on psychopathy.

Walsh is a past master at engendering a suffocating atmosphere, but here he outdoes himself. The way in which Jim is gradually sucked into this online world, and we watch his last vestiges of self-confidence slowly crushed, is as compelling as it is cruel. As the play rushes ever closer to its seemingly inevitable tragic conclusion it becomes almost too painful to watch. Former History Boy Steven Webb gives a excellent performance as Jim - a likable, painfully sweet, trusting boy - with a perfectly-judged selection of nervous laughs and self-deprecations that suggest a lifetime of bullying, while George Rainsford creates a powerful impression of dangerous sadism as his posh, good-looking tormentor.

Citizenship confirms Mark Ravenhill as theatre’s finest satirist of New Labour’s Britain. He has a brilliant ear for the absurdities of official ‘speak’. The play loosely follows a young boy, Tom, coming to terms with his sexuality. When the protagonist pleads with a gay teacher: ‘I really want to meet someone gay and ask them what it’s like.’

The teacher replies: ‘You know the school policy: we celebrate difference. You report bullies. Everything’s OK. You’re OK.’

It suggests that the result of the last 12 years of education policy - encouraging tolerance and acceptance while introducing innumerable rules and regulations, checks and balances - has resulted in a system where neither pupil nor teacher can function meaningfully as human beings.

Here again we see a teenager pleading with someone in authority for some sort of advice or instruction, this time to be answered (somewhat anachronistically by the 22-year-old teacher) that people used to do that and it wasn’t especially pleasant either. This is the brilliance of Ravenhill’s position as a satirist. He sees the current problems and can absolutely skewer them, but at the same time he has enough perspective to remember the orthodoxies that the current orthodoxies have replaced - like a Telegraph reader, wrapped in a Guardian reader, wrapped in an enigma, perhaps.

As well as doing excellent work trading in the absurdities of the education system, Ravenhill also has an uncanny knack for yoof-speak. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his creation of Tom’s close friend and confidante, Amy. Actor Michelle Tate gets the strange youth patois accent and therapyspeak-plus-bluntness fragility absolutely spot-on. Indeed, the production offers a largely first-rate cast. The problem is that here they don’t quite seem to gel into a unit - like two bits of wallpaper that aren’t quite aligned. The jokes are there, but the laughs never materialise quite as strongly as they could.

There are also a couple of directorial misfires - particularly the brief moment of the cast turning to look searchingly at the audience directly before the close of the play. However, given the length of the tour, these initial wobbles could easily resolve themselves. As an evening of entertainment, and a thought-provoking examination of what it might be like to be a teenager in today’s Britain, the overall quality is strikingly high.


Till 2 January 2008

 

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