Mogadishu

Vivienne Franzmann
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
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The Royal Exchange Theatre has decided to kick off 2011 with the only main house production so far of one of the four joint winners from the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, just as the 2011 prize opens for entries.

The less imaginative creative writing teachers say to "write what you know"; London schoolteacher Vivienne Franzmann has applied this advice to great effect in her tense drama set in a London secondary school with a frighteningly plausible premise. Black pupil Jason is racially abusing Turkish pupil Firat in front of his friends. Teacher Amanda steps in as the abuse becomes violent, but Jason pushes her over.

Amanda is reluctant to report Jason as, due to his previous record, a further serious incident would result in almost certain expulsion, but Jason, in an effort to save his own skin, persuades his friends to back up his story that Amanda pushed him first after abusing him racially. Amanda doesn't take the allegations seriously and doesn't believe that her pupils will support Jason's story, but the situation escalates quickly out of her control and her reluctance to defend herself threatens to cost her her job and even her family.

There are many times when this play is totally gripping and has the whole audience wishing they could reach out and shake some sense into Amanda. There are a lot of scenes of banter between the teenagers in well-observed teenage slang—which will date the play very quickly—that went down very well with the school parties but left expressions of incomprehension on the faces of some older audience members. This trading of insults and vulgarities is good for setting the scene and establishing the younger characters, but there is a lot more of this than is really necessary and it sometimes holds up the story.

The tight pacing of much of the first half does fall away a bit in the second half when there are a few long speeches that stray from naturalism into long-winded lyricism, circular repetitions of arguments, oddly oblique primary school reminiscences from Amanda's daughter, a rather unbelievable coincidence that gives Amanda's daughter something in common with Jason and an ending that is sudden and vague as well as being rather obvious and not nearly as powerful as the tense build-up had led us to expect.

Matthew Dunster has created a tight and slick production with his trademark merging of the end of one scene with the beginning of the next—which can occasionally be distracting—and movement of the set by the actors throughout the play. Tom Scutt's design surrounds a sparse, constantly-changing set on worn linoleum tiles with the chain link fencing of a school tennis court, which often rotates to change where the entrance gates are. Ian Dickinson's sound design adds lots of reverberant metallic sounds to those made naturally by the fence to create an oppressive, prison-like atmosphere.

The twelve-strong cast between them give some very strong performances. Julia Ford is absolutely believable at every moment as the caring schoolteacher who takes concern for others way past the point of being blind to their lack of concern for her, to her great cost. Ian Bartholomew once again proves that he is incapable of a bad performance as new head teacher Chris who is caught between wanting to defend his colleague and being forced to follow procedure and the demands of the parents, in the end being accused by everyone of not doing enough. The remaining adults are Christian Dixon as Amanda's jovial black husband Peter and Fraser James, who makes Jason's father strong and dignified with a deep sadness who is able to suggest his capability for violence without ever showing it.

The younger actors work together well as an ensemble, led by Malachi Kirby who gives a very authentic and never overplayed performance as Jason, with some very individualised and often funny performances from his friends Hammed Animashaun as Jordon, Savannah Gordon-Liburd as Dee, Tara Hodge as Chloe, Tendayi Jembere as Chuggs and Farshid Rokey as Saif. Michael Karim is the admittedly annoying if undeserving victim of the attack that kicks off the story Firat, and there is a very strong performance from Shannon Tarbet as Amanda's troubled daughter Becky.

In the launch for the next Bruntwood before the press performance, panel chairman and well-known playwright Simon Stephens jokingly expressed his fear at the threat of the new playwrights that have arisen from this competition. Franzmann has put a foot firmly on Stephens's dramatic territory here but with writing that is more consistently impressive and better able to grab and sustain the audience's attention than any of Stephens's plays that I've seen at the Royal Exchange. While there are undoubtedly some writerly indulgences that would benefit the play as a whole if they were excised, even they can be appreciated for their skilful writing.

While it is a play that would benefit from some careful cutting, at its best Mogadishu can bring the audience to the edge of their seats and shows a great flare that will no doubt create a lot of anticipation for Franzmann's next play. This is, thankfully, a world away from the disappointing first winner of the Bruntwood and well worth seeing.

"Mogadishu" runs at the Royal Exchange until 19 February then transfers to the Lyric Hammersmith from 3 March to 2 April.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Lyric Hammersmith

Reviewer: David Chadderton