Kin

E.V. Crowe
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
(2010)

When they get it right, the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs produces work that is unlike anything else around. Who else outside a school theatre would put on a play with the main characters eligible to play in an under-11 lacrosse team?

Kin is a cracking play, which will evoke comparisons with Polly Stenham but also St Trinian's and Tom Brown's Schooldays.

E.V. Crowe, who made a strong impression with Doris Day, her contribution to Charged 2 at Soho, has set what might be a semi-autobiographical play in an upmarket girl's boarding school some time in the nineties.

Anyone who thinks that little girls are still sugar and spice and all things nice is in for a rude awakening, as these tiny 10-year-old darlings use the language of troopers and are not above a touch of torture, both physical and psychological.

Jeremy Herrin's production is highly convincing, helped by a Bunny Christie-designed dorm room that is like an army barracks and a wonderfully detailed soundscape created by Christopher Shutt.

In this setting, we primarily follow the fortunes of Ciara Southwood's Mimi. This independent young girl has largely been forgotten by her expat parents. However, she still excels, doing well in class and getting cast as John Proctor in the school's version of The Crucible.

This is multi-purpose in dramatic terms. It introduces a symbolic parallel as the young girl is asked to denounce a friend, allows Mimi to précis the play with great wit and enables the heroine to demonstrate prodigious talent for one so young.

All is not entirely rosy, as Mimi has an ambivalent relationship with her best friend Janey, played by Mimi Keene. The taller girl is more robust and given to taking whatever action is required to get her own way.

An extra dimension is introduced by Annette Badland's neurotic Mrs B, a teacher who is obsessed with proving her thesis that these teenies are sexually active, or at the very least bullying each other. This strain can seem a little contrived but makes an important point, now that child abuse accusations are so prevalent.

While the comedy is rich, there are darker elements to Kin, as we begin to discover that self-possessed Mimi and her friends find the school experience stressful in so many ways that adults either cannot understand or possibly choose not to remember.

Kin is not a perfect play with several tantalising themes introduced but not fully developed. Even so, with fine acting from the opening night cast, especially the two young leads, each making a confident professional stage debut (although their enunciation still needs a little more work) and a real fly on the wall prurience, it grips throughout the 70 minute duration.

Having written two good short plays, the acid test for this highly promising playwright will be her ability to realise characters and ideas over a longer distance but, on this showing, there seems every reason to believe that will do so before too long.

Playing until 23 December

Philip Fisher