Greenside & Infirmary Street, Edinburgh
This reviewer saw ‘A Level Playing Field’, late into the Fringe, amidst much talk of the pros and cons of the current schools system as this year’s exam results came out (boys have apparently overtaken girls for the first time in years; we’ll see how long that one holds out). Against this backdrop, the play felt like a very timely piece, and, at a moment where the politics and the direction of the world feels so up in the air, it seems more important than ever to listen to what the young have to say, and to hear their voice.
45 Degrees theatre company have taken this task on with admirable energy and enthusiasm. An edited adaptation of Jonathan Guy Lewis’ 2015 play, ‘A Level Playing Field’ finds a group of ten sixth formers ‘caged’ (an excellent visual pun sees the walls of the room covered in manic, grinning photographs of actor Nicholas Cage) in isolation, trapped there between exams, and slowly going stir-crazy at the sense of being cut off from the outside world. Over the course of 50 minutes, banter and pranks gradually give way to secrets and resentment, the boiling pot of a classroom full of stressed, hormonal teenagers inevitably spilling over.
It’s an engaging concept. Ten people, who may not particularly like one another deep down, trapped together in a confined space- it’s perfect material for theatre. The play is at its best when the students all interact and fire barbs at one another, their varying personalities clashing and vying for dominance as they lament their situation. This reviewer was certainly brought in mind of old memories of being stuck in ‘free periods’ with the rest of my year group, generally bored rigid and yearning to escape, if not highly uncomfortable at the increasing restlessness and misbehaviour that would start going on around me. There’s a brilliant sense of continual low-level discomfort at watching the action unfold, the intimacy of the venue lending a feeling of almost being trapped with the pupils, and perhaps not all that far away from being drawn into their antics (I suspect I’d have felt more anxious sitting in one of the front rows). The audience feels that events could spiral out of control without too much provocation- and this helps to keep our attention fully alert at all times.
Director Jessica Walker draws a real energy and passion from the actors on stage, almost all of them given plenty to do throughout. As one would expect from a group of 17-18-year-old characters, no-one sits still for very long, the guys in particular highly restless throughout the piece, continually coming and going and, in the case of neurotic Hook (one of the two standout performers of the play, Daniel Durkin), frequently pacing about in a panic over an exam blunder, at risk of doing damage to himself in his self flagellation. Things kick up a further gear with the arrival of Ed Lees’ teacher Patrick, a particular plot point in the story giving rise to confrontation between him and the male students, and lending some great energy to the final third of the play.
At the heart of this piece is the inherent inadequacies of the British school system, from the sense of sixth form turning into an exam factory, to the potentially problematic age similarities between students and teachers, to the idea that cramming knowledge for a memory test ultimately does little to prepare young people for the real world. But among the best concepts explored by the piece for this reviewer are the impending sense of loss in leaving a familiar setting and group of people for the unknown (something I didn’t feel until after the event, but no less authentic for being feared in advance by these characters), as well as the necessity of putting on a ‘front’ for pupils in top-end schools. This is brilliantly explored by the other standout performer of the play, Maximillian King as Zachi, a boy from a less privileged background than some of his peers. There are some great disputes between him and the normally-sympathetic Hook, the latter’s snobbery and sense of entitlement showing through as he bleats about ideas of ‘birthright’ and the horror of possibly not getting into his higher institution of choice. It’s important, highly relevant stuff, and some of the best material in the piece.
Other enjoyable performances come in the form of Amelia Hunt’s ditzy Eleanor, Maya Burnand’s haughty Twink, and Fred Light’s smarmy Cal, but if there is one criticism to be had of the play, it’s that (perhaps inevitably for such a large cast) some of the characters fail to be quite as memorable, their personalities getting lost in the fray. But this reviewer would nonetheless venture that a solid two thirds of the cast get a chance to shine at some point, and this still feels like an achievement for a group of eleven across less than an hour. Having not seen the original 2015 production, it would be interesting to gauge how much the edit affected this relative drowning out of some voices.
Young people have suffered patronising disdain in much of the political discourse of the UK in recent times (something, happily, that seems to be beginning to change after the the consequences of an ill-judged walking holiday earlier this year). Based on this production, however, and the talent on display from a clearly dedicated and passionate team of actors enthused by their material, this reviewer would sooner see those said young people at work than many of their elders. All too often, modern fiction can leave a bitter aftertaste of cynicism and nihilism in the mouth. I came away from this play with, instead, a real hope for change.