Review By Lisa Lanzi
There has been a long and steady decline in status for professions such as teacher, nurse and general practitioner accompanied by less money for more work, a truckload more time commitment plus skewed societal expectations. In Chalkface by Angela Betzien, the grimy world of the primary school teacher and their environs are revealed in sharp, comic, and sometimes vicious focus. As entertaining as the play is, it also reflects on the depressingly beleaguered entity that is our education system.
Director Jessica Arthur has assembled an able team, both cast and creatives, as Betzien’s characters grind through most of a school year with highlights such as a memorial morning tea for an expired colleague, book week shenanigans (and costumes), everyone’s nemesis - a never seen student named ‘Hurricane Little’, and the obligatory school sleepover. Part dark comedy, part farce with some surreal scene-change elements, Chalkface peers into the chaotic and vastly under-appreciated teacher universe. Arthur’s direction is sure for the most part and inspired in important scenes where the action and narrative advances.
Appropriately, the stage is lit as the audience enters so that we can leisurely appreciate Ailsa Paterson’s grimly realistic design: a typical, decaying public school staffroom complete with two-tone peeling walls, lacklustre public service furniture, plus cockroach infested kitchen replete with ‘best teacher’ mugs and catering size instant coffee tin. Lining the walls are various faded but glib posters, out-of-date efficiency proclamations, dusty, over-stuffed pigeonholes, and rusted, grubby ventilation outlets. Lighting from Mark Shelton only served to focus attention on the crumbling, under-funded space then interestingly bookended the scene shifts with softer and more dreamlike states. Sound design and composition is also beautifully fulfilled by Jessica Dunn.
Catherine McClements shines and commands the action as Pat Novitsky. This character is a portrait of a once passionate teacher dealing with burnout by shielding herself with sarcasm, sass and a habit of calling bullshit as she sees fit, not to mention a healthy addiction to coffee and her evening self-medication with a tasty cabernet. Anna Park, new to the school and armed with her Masters in Neuroplasticity and Child Behaviour, becomes the ideal foil to Novitsky’s cynicism. Stephanie Somerville endows her Anna with a fine journey from star graduate with lofty integrity and vocational ideals to a more measured human honed by the realities of classroom and staffroom. The scenes between McClements and Sommerville are some of the best in the play as the comedic competitive patter progresses to more nuanced communication and connection between allies from diverse generations.
An underused Susan Prior presents a gentle stooge to the more overt action as Denise Hart, the vulnerable music teacher whose unexplained pregnancy provides a loose timeline for the school year. An energetic Nathan O’Keefe struts and hovers as school principal Douglas Housten, forever doing battle with Pat Novitsky as he attempts to elevate school operations and outlook to a more corporate model. The unfortunately named Cheryl Filch is played by Michelle Ny. The maligned but driven administration apparatchik is less rounded as a character but has some very amusing lines, often over the school public address system. Ezra Juanta is entertaining as the injured PE teacher and failed dancer Steve Budge who carts his ‘doughnut’ around to cushion his sacrum waivering between capable, jaded, near hysterical, and paranoid.
Betzien’s script is multifaceted and peppered with some back stories that appear hyper-realistically without much elaboration but nevertheless give vague glimpses into character or weave some complexity into a storyline, albeit with no resolution. The sometimes slapstick comedy is well-executed and mostly manages to propel the narrative while simultaneously taking a well-deserved dig at the plight of teachers. Dénouement and resolution are vastly contrasting and give the play a slightly unbalanced finish, however the final moments are quietly satisfying. In this early part of the season, pace and transitions are not always quite where they could be but I expect that this will settle as the season unfolds.
A State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company co-production, Chalkface is at the Dunstan Playhouse until August 20th. It will move to the Sydney Opera House from September 15 to October 29, and to Parramatta and Canberra in November.
Image Credit: Matt Byrne