Review – Chatroom/Citizenship, National Theatre

Wednesday 5 September 2007

The Whingers felt very old last night.

Of course, Phil is very old; at least according to Andrew who is still living the fantasy that he’s in the first flush of his youth and parries all enquiries about his age with just five words: “I am in my prime”.

So it was that Andrew dragged Phil off to the National Theatre last night to see Chatroom and Citizenship a dose of yoof theatre, insisting that he would relate to the teenagers’ issues portrayed on the stage. How Phil laughed.

Chatroom by Enda Walsh and Citizenship by Mark Ravenhill were commissioned as part of the National Theatre’s Connections project – a very complicated sounding thing which involves commissioning 10 x 60 minutes plays from “the hottest playwrights in the world” which are then workshopped at a retreat with the people who will direct them and then staged by young people in schools across the country. Apparently the National Theatre sends assessors to view every production and report back on their various demerits and – in some instances presumably – have a good old laugh. The Whingers have offered to lend a hand next year.

Phil, it must be said, entered the theatre with a certain trepidation. It is no longer only policemen and doctors who seem young to him – people in Tuesday afternoon queues at the Post Office are beginning to appear nimble of foot, radical of idea, and avant garde in their dress sense.

His worst fears were confirmed by the large numbers of people in their second decade milling about the foyer sporting unlikely hair-dos and looking terrifyingly confident. Andrew was particularly shocked as he had come straight from the Alan Bennett platform where he felt like the youngest person and was certainly one of few not actually leaning on a stick.

As the Whingers do not trust people who don’t drink – even if it’s simply because they are too young to do it lawfully – they swiftly purchased their programmes (£2. v. good) took a quick trip upstairs to the lav, then back down again and into the auditorium where they went back up again to the same level they had just come down from, and took their seats.

The Cottesloe is by no means the Whingers’ favourite “space” in London so there were sighs of relief on finding that the auditorium (which has recently been serving up its paltry offerings dressed up with staging designed to ensure that half the audience are viewing only the backs and tops of the players’ heads) was arranged in the manner of a real theatre – not in the round, the square, the rectangle, in traverse nor even played out on that funny squiggly symbol on which Prince (formerly known as squiggly symbol) is prone to stage his concerts.

But it got better; both actually plays actually told a story and combined to provide a thoroughly entertaining evening with some impressive performances to boot. And all over in two hours. What’s going on?

Chatroom is by Enda (no, that’s not a typo: Phil’s failing eyesight led him to believe it had been written by a woman called Edna – Andrew’s turn to laugh here) Walsh is about, well, chatrooms: virtual places where people sit apparently, chatting to each other on computers on something called the Internet. Phil was lost already: he has never entered a chatroom in his life and was expecting to see something about a kitchen preparing Indian food.

To confuse him further the kids (or contemporaries in Andrew’s case) talk about things like Willy Wonka, J K Rowling, Harry Potter and Brittany (Phil – it’s “Britney” – Andrew.) Spears, Phil knows nothing of these things and glanced enviously at Andrew who was nodding knowingly (and – for once – not off).

The play is the story of Jim, a potentially suicidal boy (this one isn’t a comedy, by the way), who at first finds a sympathetic ear when he visits chatrooms but later stumbles into the online company of an evil bunch of middle class Chiswick teenagers who do not have his best interests at heart.

While it’s a good story, it’s a curious conceit for a stage play as nobody is doing anything except sitting on a chair and typing, although director Anna Mackmin (now somewhat redeeming herself after In Celebration) wisely opts to have them speak their lines while sitting on some of the 30 (Phil counted them) plastic chairs arranged on the stage. There was a moment of heart-sinking towards the end when it looked like all of the chairs were going to be stacked painfully slowly, but thankfully it turned out to be only some of them.

The denouement – which features the currently mandatory piece of video – doesn’t quite work, but it was both atmospheric and absorbing – as testified by the fact that Andrew (who can nap with the best of them) didn’t nod off once.

Some of the performances are excellent, notably Steven Webb as the suicidal Jim. Scarily, the Whingers must have seen Webb at the London Palladium when he played Oliver in Oliver! at the age of 11. Seems like only yesterday; they grow up so fast, don’t they?

The second play – Citizenship – is the comedy. It’s exuberant and played sometimes like an extended Catherine Tate sketch. It’s centred around a group of students who are presumably in what would have been called the Upper Fifth in the Whingers’ day but is probably now called “Year Something” as part of the various educational “reforms” aimed at denuding the system of any kind of interestingness whatsovever.

Tom (Ashley Rolfe) doesn’t know if he is gay or not and his appeal for advice from his stressed citizenship teacher De Clerk (Richard Dempsey, brilliant and hysterically funny) falls on deaf ears (“I’m citizenship, not biology”). So Tom embarks on his own journey of self-discovery, commencing with the self-harming, Croydon facelift-sporting Amy (Michelle Tate, delightful) and progressing – in the inevitable direction – from there.

Everything is painted with a satisfyingly broad brush (not least George Rainsford‘s wonderfully OTT Gary) and there are some interesting ideas: De Clerk can’t understand Tom’s frustration with an educational system which won’t give him any guidance; in De Clerk’s time the teaching was all about rights and wrongs.

Amid all this yoof, Andrew was in his element, making a mental note to affect a black patois in the manner of today’s white teenagers, but Phil was totally out of his depth. It wasn’t like this in his day. There was no “citizenship”, only useful subjects such as Classics and Latin.

Why, he wondered, were they studying a silly, pointless subject like “citizenship”? Oblivious to the larger themes of the play, Phil concluded that it was merely to bump up the exam results. When Andrew confessed that he indeed had studied citizenship in the Lower Sixth, Phil felt that his point had been vindicated completely. If only Andrew had got a proper edukashun. Phil felt himself morphing into Anne Widdicombe (physically not a problem): “No wonder everyone leaves school with 85 grade A’s”.

It should be pointed out that even in Andrew’s day (practically yesterday, apparently), citizenship was very different. There was no carrying round fake babies nor discussions about alternative lifestyles. Andrew tried to remember exactly what it was he was taught in Citizenship but could only come recall something about the number of MPs in the House of Commons (six hundred and something) and how to wire a plug.

Anyway, to get to the point: it was a good night at the theatre. And how often do we say that?

One Response to “Review – Chatroom/Citizenship, National Theatre”

  1. Daveonthego Says:

    Mention of thirty plastic chairs being painfully slowly removed from the stage took me right back to my favourite piece of theatre of all time. A North London Secondary school production of Guys and Dolls in which all of the sinners/gangsters (heavily padded out to find roles for everyone) having just completed the Salvation army prayer meeting scene attempted to leave the stage carrying their chairs at the same time. What should have been a swift exit resulted in the most horrific bottleneck played out in slow motion and five minutes of gripping my sides and trying not to wet myself.

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