Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kin at the Royal Court

EV Crowe’s first full length play for the Royal Court paints a bleak picture of boarding school life. It concerns two young room-mates, Janey and Mimi, both ten. Theirs is a stark world, lit by strip lights and entirely lacking in comfort, cold in more ways than one. Because the play is set in the mid-1990s the payphone, providing a lone link to home, is a central part of their lives and as such the site of conflict and emotion, the holding back of tears. 

While Kin can be superficially linked to the work of Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss, plays by young women depicting the turbulent lives of middle class children, it’s in some ways a less daring piece. Where Crowe – whose short playDoris Day is currently showing at Soho Theatre as part of their Charged season – really excels is in creating atmosphere, in capturing the vocabulary of the dormitory (anorexia casually abbreviated to ‘annie’ and so forth). The patterns of the girls’ conversations feel plausible and their interactions, alternatively hostile and affectionate, are equally convincing. Janey is cruel to Mimi, both physically and emotionally, yet she is a solid thing in a world of uncertainty, more tangible then her absent parents, and as such is more important; Mimi hates and loves her in equal measure.

The play is less strong structurally. Crowe sets up a scene and then backspins to show the events leading up to it. Yet the play lacks shape and meanders dramatically. This is perhaps necessary to illustrate the repetitious nature of their existence – as it’s twice pointed out the girls have to endure five more years of this before they reach Lower Sixth – but it makes for a rather flat theatrical experience.

The characters are younger than in Stenham and Reiss’s plays. It’s only a couple of years but it makes a difference. Their adult banter and expletive-heavy dialogue feels very much like a case of them testing themselves and each other, pushing the boundaries. It’s far less unnerving than the sexual confidence and emotional confusion of twelve year old Delilah in Reiss’s Spur of the Moment. In fact it’s the adults, or at least their teacher Mrs B (played by a permanently frazzled looking Annette Badland), who seem overly keen to credit them with more sexual experience and understanding than they actually have.

The production also relies rather too much on the mischievous juxtaposition of these sweet-looking girls and the constant stream of ‘fucks’ that spill from their mouths. This is particularly evident when the girls sing Once in Royal David’s City, faces torch-lit and beaming, only to conclude with a casual, “Who the fuck was David?”

Jeremy Herrin (who directed both Spur of the Moment and both of Stenham’s plays) clearly has a knack for drawing strong performances from a young cast. All the girls are making their professional stage debuts and they make a good, if occasionally hesitant, job of their demanding roles. But despite this the play remains sealed off and difficult to penetrate, especially if that’s not a world you’ve known. There are hints of something more reaching in the writing, a very faint sniff of Lindsay Anderson’s If…. Mrs B describes her charges as small dogs and this is echoed in the howling and growling outside the windows, but it’s not something the play builds on. It’s by nature an insular world that Crowe is depicting but it could be made more open, more inviting, instead the play keeps its audience at arm’s length.

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