A meshed and messed up wire gate climbs up and around the Lyric stage. Inside lies a school playground. But are these sky high walls protecting or trapping the teenagers in Vivienne Franzmann’s Mogadishu? And exactly who is prisoner and who warden? For whilst these gates mark out the teenagers’ boundaries they also encircle every other scene; they surround the teachers’ staffroom, their homes and their children. Who is trapping whom and how the hell is anyone meant to escape?
This is Franzmann’s first play and the fact it raises so many important questions is admirable in itself. Add to this a wealth of sensitively observed characters and a writer who refuses to pick sides and it’s clear Mogadishu is onto a great thing. Sure, the ending is a touch too neat for such a gnarly play and the metaphors sometimes feel overdone, but this remains an important and timely piece.
Franzmann was a teacher before she turned playwright, and this experience tells. She has absorbed the environment of her play – an overrun and understaffed comprehensive school – and with Mogadishu, it feels like Franzmann is finally breathing out. This is years of observations, questions and sympathies spilled onto stage, pulled together with balance and skill.
It is perhaps inevitable that the teenagers are the main attraction here. Next to these spitting, fiery and fierce creations, the teachers seem a little pallid. Jason (Malachi Kirby) is the star player and his frightened fear fires Mogadishu from within. When Jason pushes over teacher Amanda, the threat of permanent suspension claws at his skin. Unable to contemplate a blank future, he sets about re-imagining his past.
This rewriting of history begins playfully enough. Jason and his friends re-enact the play’s pivotal incident, colouring in and erasing at will. ‘I’m sick at drama!’, enthuses Jason’s mate Chuggs, as the pack of hoodies paint Jason as victor and teacher Amanda (Julia Ford), as a racist and instigator of violence. It is a game to everyone but Jason, who is frighteningly and markedly stiff, propped up by his public pride and private fears.
But the game turns dangerous soon enough. As the lies escalate, Amanda finds herself trapped by her own leniency. Over and over again, she excuses Jason’s actions, remembers his troubled past, and puts her own future in serious jeopardy. Though she prides herself on knowing the ‘real’ side of her students, daughter Becky (Shannon Tarbet) knows better. She rails at her mum, demanding harsher punishment. In a play of inverted and twisted expectations, it is the daughter who lectures the mum on parenting-skills.
Tarbet is a blazing presence and her indignant and frightened rage is moving and familiar. Kirby, too, is starkly impressive. He has been given a grenade of a role, but he keeps that explosion firmly under wraps. The scenes between Jason and his security-guard father, Ben (Fraser James) tremble with unreleased – but promised - punches. Dunster directs carefully throughout and, when he places the father with his back to his son, the miscommunication within this tiny, self-destructive family, blazes out.
Yet although this is a serious and draining play, it is also shot through with lightness. The great thing about having teenagers onstage is the fickleness of their interests and engagement. They are frequently taut with vicious intent but, just as things threaten to cloud over completely, two of the kids extol the virtues of cupcakes; ‘Your little sister made us some little cakes with her little hands.’
The teenagers’ dialogue is fittingly erratic, flashing between light and dark at lightning pace. These young adults are also the perfect vessels with which to explore the idea of truth – and the compulsion to lie. As a teenager, almost everything is an act; you don’t know who you are, so you play at who you’d like to be; you don’t know who to like, so you make and break friends easily; you don’t know who to trust, so you end up trusting no one. This is what really fizzes off the stage in Mogadishu – that endless scrabbling around for truth in those limbo years, when the yearning to be an adult forces you to scratch out your past and, in the worst instances, wipe out your future altogether.