[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)
Chalk Farm is half a take on last year’s London riots, and half an examination of a mother-and-son relationship. It does both well but never quite makes either soar, despite being a tender and touching portrait of how the riots affected some of the people of London, and where the anger that lead to them came from. It’s well-acted by Thomas Dennis as Jamie and Julia Taudevin (who also co-writes with Kieran Hurley) as his mother, Maggie, and moments of their relationship are extremely well captured. Jamie is a nice mix of vulnerable little boy (with his Bat Man lunchbox) and angry young man – who gets caught up in the excitement and chaos that both leads up to and is caused by the riots.
Maggie talks about the politicians – Cameron, Miliband – who posture and pose and pretend to understand what her life is like; a life where she will “always be dirt poor no matter how hard I work” because she’s a single mother working in a call centre with no prospect of a better-paid job. Taudevin is especially good when she rips into the politicians’ and media’s demonisation of single mothers, spitting and full of rage. But she doesn’t explode. She keeps it inside, even when a woman on the phone at her job calls the people living on Maggie’s estate “scum”. She keeps it inside for Jamie’s sake, and these moments are the most heartbreaking.
Jamie himself is a sulky but eloquent teenage boy, trying to make sense of the world and his place in it, without sounding “like a dickhead”. Dennis imbues him with a nice amount of vulnerability and swagger. The sheer joy he feels is infectious, the joy he feels when he’s part of a crowd, part of something bigger – part of history, as his friend Junior puts it. It’s easy to empathise with both characters, but the whole piece feels a little slight; it’s a big topic to cover, of course, but it’d be nice if this did more than scratch the surface. These two are a microcosm of a much wider classist society – one that is “broken” in ways David Cameron can’t begin to imagine – and that’s only touched upon very lightly. The ending feels a little rushed, too, and doesn’t ring as true as the rest of the play.
I found the design, of lots of screens fizzing with photos, maps, life, initially intriguing, but the constant barrage of images gets a little bit much. The choreographed movement sequences between scenes, and when mother and son dance around each other in their tiny flat, sit oddly with the naturalistic and honest tone of the rest of the show. It’s an interesting and important piece, but one that could go further with its ideas.
Chalk Farm is at the Underbelly until 25 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.