Craig Hepworth, Adele Stanhope
Vertigo Theatre Productions
Three Minute Theatre, Manchester
In an unexpected twist of fate, this production, which deals with the bullying and intimidation behind a high school slaying, is being performed around the time of the anniversaries of two of the worst of these atrocities. Columbine and Virginia Tech respectively have become by-words for the dysfunction and disaffection which can lead to mass violence.
Rage is set in an American high school during and just after one such killing spree from tormented loner Max, who remains unseen although the key topic of the dialogue. We seven students take refuge with their teacher Mrs Townsend in a vacated classroom. We also witness from their startled reactions a part of their ordeal as the shots offstage indicate that the killer is in their vicinity and shoots into their initial classroom with deadly results.
The Vertigo team of co-writer / directors Craig Hepworth and Adele Stanhope have worked on this piece on and off for some 8 years. This shows in the depth of the characterisations presented here. It’s a comprehensive sequence of debates and issues explored in the classroom while the students wait for the all-clear to leave the “locked down” campus.
The premise of the play is that the way the culture of the school operates leads to dangerous polarisation and in turn to bullying and intimidation. It is powerfully asserted in the drama that this is what can cause murderous rampages like those in the US in recent years. The argument is borne out by research. It is clear that the young actors have accessed some of their own difficult personal teenage experiences in developing their roles.
The topics considered by the characters through the stifling classroom tensions include the gun debate, violence in TV and movies and how far family breakdown and the lack of people in whom to confide may play a part in these modern American outrages.
The group is broadly divided into the jocks and the high school queen and the nerd and geeks. This mirrors the divide in the school which it is alleged forms the backdrop to the killings as an act of revenge. It is forensically detailed how the killer, Max, is excluded from the mainstream. Yet this fatal stereotyping has blighted all their lives.
Part of the journey of the play is for the characters who are seen as school successes to face up to the part they play in oppressing those who don’t or can’t match their sporting prowess and physical attractiveness.
There are regular outbursts of violence which, while necessary for the character development and the revelation of important plot points, at times feels a little strained and repetitious. The first half is more successful in maintaining the oppressive sense of claustrophobia and terror as these very different and troubled young people are forced together when their clear wish would be to be back home and in a place of safety.
All the cast have their moments in the sun through the device of a platform at the front of the stage which gives a kind of a thrust element. They in turn step out of the action to reveal their inner fears and the impact of their ordeal. While these are generally very well done, affecting standouts in the short monologues come from Natasha Horn as Rachel the high school queen who is completely traumatised by what she’s witnessed and Kyle Martin as Blake the young gay man who has been assaulted by the jocks and understands all too keenly the rage of the powerless.
Richard Allen, in another strong performance, gives us a bullying jock Mark who goes some way to appreciating what it’s like to be on the receiving end. David Edward Lock as Jason convincingly treads a difficult line as his character is a friend of the killer Max. He is very often at the focal point of the conflict on the stage. He is a very troubled young man.
Celine Contstantinides as Laura effectively shows the resentment of a young woman who wants to be a part of the popular girl clique but who is not accepted. Conor Hanifin as Danny is another jock struggling with the inanity of his need to cruelly dominate. Heather Errington as Erin powerfully reveals how her character becomes persecuted through a failed affair.
The only adult character we see, teacher Mrs Townsend, is very believably played by Julia Walsh in perhaps the most rounded performance of the evening. She has to struggle to keep herself together so that she can try and keep everyone calm and as comparatively safe as possible given the uncontrolled violence in the school.
The way that the characters begin to understand each other is very well shown. There is a good balance of conflict and quieter, more reflective moments.
The crucial final plot twist comes just at the right point towards the end of the second half when there is almost a risk of the piece losing some of the carefully built-up dramatic momentum.
As some of the tension is lost by the arrival of the interval, it would be interesting to see the impact of the piece performed with a slightly shorter run time and no break. This is important work, however, brilliantly tackled with an impressive integrity from all concerned.
The closing montage is a moving reminder of the almost 300 young people who died in school shootings from 1990 to March 2014. In another sobering statistic, it is revealed in the programme notes that in the UK, research has shown that half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards