Ian Winterton
Shred Productions and Balloon Head Productions
Paradise in the Vault

First shown at Manchester's 24:7 Festival, this excellent play feels like it could easily be longer: a huge amount of story is squeezed into an hour, which makes it a refreshingly fast-paced narrative ride, such a pleasant change from plays which are all about atmosphere and not so much story.

Secondary school teacher Michael (Oliver Devoti) has started seeing a prostitute, "Sherica". Her real name's Katie, and she's the older sister and sole carer of Natalie, who has just started at the posh grammar school where Michael teaches. The school has just progressed to Academy status and so has started taking students from poorer backgrounds like Natalie.

Michael's wife Holly (Katy Slater) also teaches as the school. Michael says he's just grown weary of his sex life with Holly, starting to find it "mechanical" - "something you do every so often, like bleeding the radiators". Seeing Sherica does spice up his sexual appetite for Holly, so for a while things are looking weirdly positive for him.

Then, of course, one day Katie comes to pick Natalie up from school, and runs into Michael and sees his wife too. The situation is further complicated by Douglas (a very good William Hutchby), an odious privileged student at the school who is resentful of the recent influx of students from comprehensive backgrounds. He also happens to be a client of Sherica's, with a fondness, hilariously, for having her brush his hair and stroke his arm and sing Rupert the Bear to him. He also asks for sexual stuff of course, and one day he secretly films her as she's servicing him. When Douglas finds out that Katie is Natalie's sister, and further that Michael is having an affair with Katie, he tries to blackmail Michael for money or he'll blow the whole thing open.

The play is so sharp on school politics and the workings of the "system". When the truth about Katie's employment comes out, Holly resolves to allow Katie the chance to persuade her that she should still be allowed to care for Natalie. Katie powerfully pleads to have the chance to "be the last fuck-up in a long line of fuck-ups", to make enough money to allow Natalie to be the first in their damaged family to get a good education, go to university, and make a good life for herself.

Ruth Middleton's performance makes Katie extremely sympathetic; even when she's being Sherica she still has a no-nonsense manner to her which makes her thoroughly likeable. Michael is a bit of a prop to the plot, but every other character is vivid and fully-formed.

Natalie, superbly played by Nicola Stebbings, is bright and hard-working but also foul-mouthed and with a bit of a problem with authority. When Douglas bullies her she gives as good as she gets. "There's no need for language like that", says one of the teachers to her; "There's always need for language like that", she shoots back.

Mr Pope (David Slack), the elderly army-mad disciplinarian teacher at the school, is set up firstly to be a bit of a figure of ridicule, but turns out in the end to be a very good egg. Douglas is the real villain of the piece. The play is essentially saying that decency has nothing to do with class, and how people talk or how even how they superficially behave is not nearly as important as what they ultimately do.

The writing is excellent; distinctive and natural and funny. Near the end Natalie quotes Aeschylus, but it doesn't jar with us that she should know the quote, because it's quoted by JK Rowling at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. "Bless the children, give them triumph now." A complicated, thorny, empathetic piece that is extremely well-paced and, in Trevor MacFarlane's slick direction, incredibly easy to watch. I wanted more.

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury

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