Hannah Nixon
Papercut Theatre
The Vaults (the Cavern) Leake Street

Lola (Gemma Barnett) and Jez (Rob Ostiere) Credit: Papercut Theatre

You’d think that young people are now safer than ever in British schools.

It's not just that they have the protection of the old school duty to be 'in loco parentis', but they have the newer added protection of safeguarding policies and the Prevent strategy.

And we shouldn't forget the important ways political activists have sharpened our awareness of issues of abuse.

Yes, you’d think that things had never been safer for young people.

But that’s not what eighteen-year-old Lola (Gemma Barnett) finds when she tries to have something done about a classmate endlessly staring at her, other pupils bullying her and someone sticking a note on her car reading “slag”.

The two teachers she approaches about the issue seem inept.

Her opportunity to speak with a male teacher Jez (Rob Ostiere) comes when she sees him walking home from school in the pouring rain. Giving him a lift in her car, she tells him about her anxieties and the lad who is obsessed by her.

She finds Jez easy to talk to and he is amiably sympathetic without offering a solution.

In contrast, back in school, senior teacher Liv (Joanne Ferguson) is formal, shutting the door to create what she calls a “safe space”, taking notes of everything said and asking questions.

But instead of dealing with the problems Lola is trying to raise about other students, she seems keen to hunt down inappropriate behaviour in Jez, focusing on that lift Lola gave him.

Lola grows frustrated with what she feels is Liv’s obsession.

Liv’s only help seems to be to tell Lola to push back, citing the example of the way women in the past had slapped men who got out of line.

None of this helps Lola whose anxiety leads to violent dreams about her breasts being hacked off.

It's a disturbing play that shows how young people can be failed despite a mountain of formal protections. It also questions the way the rules can be dodged or even misused for reasons quite separate from their supposed intentions.

There is even a brief logical if absurd use by the school of Prevent’s anti-radicalisation strategy.

Your attention is held by the play’s sharp, focused dialogue, the issues raised and the fine memorable acting particularly from Gemma Barnett as Lola.

However, the sudden improbable revelations and twists in what we are led to believe about character motivation and behaviour seem to be driven by the demands of plot rather than character.

All the same, this is a very watchable if pessimistic play about the inadequacies of paper rules and the complicated motivations of those who have to use them.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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