Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Scottish playwrights, Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin, join forces with ThickSkin, to create Chalk Farm, a finely drawn picture of a mother and son during the time of the London riots. It combines multi-media, movement and text to offer a nuanced and empathetic look at what happened that summer.
After the London riots two years ago, David Cameron took it on himself to blame the parents and used it as an excuse to introduce measures to deal with England’s ‘troubled families’. Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin’s bristling new play looks at one of those so-called troubled families, and finds Mr. Cameron’s analysis somewhat lacking.
Maggie is a single mother who’s worked hard to ensure that her son, Jamie, has the best start in life and a decent place to live. They live in Chalcott Towers in Chalk Farm, looking out over all of London. When he was little, he and his mum looked out like super heros imaging they could keep London safe; now he escapes by himself to the roof looking out and fantasising about what he wants from his life. As the riots unfurl, Jamie is enticed into a world beyond the safe cocoon his mother has created for the two of them.
Under Neil Bettle’s taut direction, Chalk Farm tracks backwards and forwards with ease between young boy to teenager, using monologues from Maggie and Jamie direct to audience as well as dialogue between the two. Around them there is a forest of screens onto which images are projected. They show Jamie’s transition from boy to teenager, the city swirling below them, and as Jamie is drawn further into the action of the riots, flames lap around them threatening to engulf their lives. The on screen images create a city intoxicating with excitement and the lure of the forbidden.
The writing is at its best when it puts words in Jamie’s mouth. He speaks like an adolescent with the “It’s like, well you know man’ patter that somehow in the mouths of teenagers becomes more than the sum of its parts. It’s a beautifully drawn part: that wonderful chrysalis that adolescents inhabit of contradictory selves still struggling to find their true identity. Jamie is by turns the teenager who doesn’t want his mum in his life but then wants to give her a treat, the boy who follows what his friend, Junior, does and the aspiring man who dreams of a future. His speeches on the roof are brilliantly drawn, as are the scenes of a young boy initially looking on and then pulled in by the excitement of the riots.
Maggie is a more problematic character. While the play paints a sympathetic picture of the changing relationship between Maggie and her son and is a fine depiction of parent-teenager interaction, in attempting to emphasise the love Maggie has for her son her character becomes a little sentimentalised.
There is some fine acting here from both performers. Thomas Dennis is electrifying as the young adolescent who is caught up in and enthralled by the riots, vibrant and really alive for the first time in his world. Julia Taudevin, the play’s co-author, plays the mother, an arguably more difficult part, with a quiet strength and dignity.
The strength of this piece lies in its refusal to find easy answers and to reduce the complexity of the riots to sound-bites. It seeks to understand rather than to blame. The Jamie who fantasises about protecting the city from harm as a Bat- Angel isn’t, after all, so different to the teenager who wants to get his mum a bottle of pink fizz as a treat as he loots Chalk Farm Sainsburys.