Edinburgh Fringe 2013
"September 2003. The start of a new term. Elle and Kay waste time after school: Unicorn or phoenix? Jump or drown? House or holiday? The game seems endless. But when wasting time leads to your teacher falling in love with you, they quickly discover how morals are not always clear cut, friendships are flimsy and loyalties can be as false as the man they call Sir. A candid and reflective piece of new writing exposing the dangers of growing up."
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – a teacher entrusted with a child’s welfare crosses the line between appropriate and inappropriate. It is also a best friend’s hardest dilemma – to tell or not to tell. Play For September is the true-life story of just such a situation which arose during playwright Olivia Hirst’s formative years.
We enter to find the stage set as a run-of-the-mill classroom. Stage left is a whiteboard upon which will be tracked the weeks and months of unfolding drama. It is an excellent device, a constant reminder that the events shown really happened, relatively recently to real people. Although the friend in the true story, onstage Hirst is schoolgirl Kay who discovers that her crush on Sir is returned in full. Her own obvious emotional trauma is subsumed in a detailed depiction of her friend’s romantic naivety only emerging during a tearful curtain call. The giggly teenager who bursts onto the stage in the play’s opening moments has been replaced by someone darker and more distrusting.
Play For September is a three hander with Rianna Dearden as Elle the gooseberry at the centre of the dramatic cross-currents passing between Kay and her teacher. Dearden exactly balances her roles as both narrator and participant. She gives a voice to the part which is engaging, lively, youthful, mischievous and hugely compelling. Without cutting across the bows of the central drama, she deftly illustrates her character’s turbulent inner descent with tiny inflections of speech, pace and tone. The effect is climatic. The faint tones of unhappiness burst into a crescendo of doubt and self-recrimination. A stellar performance.
Jim Crago as the teacher is more elusive. If Hirst is pen and ink, Dearden oil paints, his medium is watercolours. Crago finds the good to counterweight the bad. An immature and inexperienced young teacher basking in the attention and adoration heaped on him, especially by Kay. At what point his own infatuation begins is unclear, was it always there? Is he a determined groomer of vulnerable children or a hapless poser out of his depth? Crago is so effectively creepy in the part, that word is his own girlfriend won’t be in the same room with him until he’s out of character and costume.
The script’s conclusion is less ambiguous. Righteous indignation drips from every line in the final scenes. The inclusion of Roger McGough’s The Jogger’s Song in the final summation blasts out any sense that we have witnessed innocence gone awry. My companion feels cheated of her right to reply. She’s the producer of a play about Wilde’s writing of Salome, moral ambiguity is partly her stock-in-trade this Fringe. As I stand with her at the bar afterwards I can’t help reflecting that possibly more years separate us than do Kay and her teacher.
As a showcase of a tight ensemble Play For September is a great success. As a pathfinder through the moral maze it is less a torch than a controlled burn. Where it could singe, it scorches and something is lost for that. Even so, this is an expertly executed hour of high drama and personal crisis and I am very glad to have seen it.