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Review: Chalkface at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Review by Carly Fisher

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that teachers, especially those in the public sector, and particularly those who teach primary school, have it easy! Under-resourced, too often plagued with helicopter parents and battling a department of education that tries to systemise when and how ALL children will learn, teaching is no easy profession, and it helps no one that it is so grossly underappreciated and undervalued. In the context of the teacher’s strikes over the past couple of years, Angela Betzien’s play felt timely, necessary and laced with a perfect balance of humour, despite the really important conversation that it raised.

Currently playing at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, Chalkface is Betzien’s newest play and is a co-production from Sydney Theatre Company and Adelaide’s State Theatre Company.

It follows 4 teachers, a principal and a school administrator in the school staffroom as they return from the summer break and then, as the school year progresses. Betzien’s script is clever, witty and stark in its commentary on the need for a better education system that tailors learning to individual students and on the desperate cry for better conditions, care and resources for teachers. At an hour and 45 minutes, the show is quite long to not have an interval, however, to break the flow and pace of this show would be a true disservice and so the audience seem happy enough to support throughout the long sitting time.

For me, a few elements truly stood out - firstly, the script itself - A great new Australian comedy that is totally relatable even for those of us non-teachers in the room.

Secondly, Ailsa Paterson’s completely perfect set. From the decrepit walls, to the mismatching furniture, the basic kitchenette filled with a smelly fridge and instant coffee, pigeon holes, a chalkboard and more, the set allowed for a perfect amount of playing space for the actors, whilst simultaneously evoking great nostalgia for the audience. Colourful, vibrant, and perfectly real, Paterson has much to be proud of in this set.

Finally, Catherine McClements! Without a doubt the star of this show, McClements commanded the stage, offering a truly authentic performance as the experienced Pat Novitsky, a battle-hardened, seen-it-all teacher whose long term commitment to the school is something that neither goes unnoticed but also is not adequately appreciated or celebrated…I’m sure many teachers reading this will be nodding their heads at that comment! McClements is funny, honest and particularly dynamic in this role and without question, the stage is hers.

Stephanie Somerville, as the young, bright eyed and bushy tailed new teacher of the year, Anna Park, gave a strong performance and the chemistry between McClements and Somerville felt natural and truthful. I look forward to seeing more from Somerville because I think that there is a lot of untapped potential brewing in her!

Overall though, despite these fantastic contributions, I left the theatre feeling underwhelmed. The caliber of the performances as an ensemble did not feel up to the STC standard. To be fair here, I will note that I do feel that seeing an STC show at the Sydney Opera House does hold some expectations but this show simply, for me, did not live up to them. The mixed ability of the cast felt unmeasured and short sighted and despite generally loving Jess Arthur’s work, this time I felt that the show lacked strong enough direction to offer a truly cohesive production. The inclusion of black outs distracted from the beautiful choreographed transitions which was just a shame, and the sound design seemed like a late inclusion in the piece due to its minimalism and kind of random inclusion. What was there of the sound and lighting was good and certainly did a lot to showcase Jessica Dunn (sound) and Mark Shelton’s (lighting) talents…I just wish that there had been a chance for more.

Though the set was excellent, the stage felt too large for this show and I wonder if in a more appropriate venue (perhaps one of the wharf theatres even), this show would have had a better chance to truly soar. My honest opinion is that it may have.

All of this said, I think that Betzien’s script is one to see and I would encourage people to see the show - gosh it is good to just go out for a light hearted night at the theatre! For teachers especially, I think that this is a show that you have to see for a good laugh and a fun night out!

Through the laughter though - and there are some really well written and expertly delivered one liners that will have you cackling - I hope that audiences walk out thinking about the treatment of teachers, the resourcing of schools and what we need to do to ensure that Australian schools are in the best position to deliver the highest quality education for young people. It’s a conversation that we don’t have enough and that I am thrilled to have seen raised on the stage - in my opinion, the best platform available to raise conversation about important social issues.

Walking out of the theatre, my biggest take away was simple…THANK YOU to all of our teachers! You truly are the unsung heroes of our communities.

Image Credit: Matt Byrne


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