Scum! Pigs! Chavs! All terms that were hurled around to describe the looting that took place during the 2011 London riots. But how would you react if you discovered that one of the hooded figures ransacking your local community was in fact your 14-year-old son? This moral dilemma forms the basis of Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin’s play Chalk Farm. Told mainly through a series of monologues this piece charts the story of single mother Maggie’s (Julia Taudevin) struggle to raise her teenage son Jamie (Thomas Dennis) on a high-rise London estate.
The bare performance space consisted of just two black stools and a fragmented London Underground map projected onto a series of white square canvases. This simple staging reinforces that the pulsating heart of the piece is the strong bond between a mother and her son. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I saw a play where there was such a believable dynamic of unconditional love established so early on within the piece. I think this is partly due to the clever use of flashbacks at the start, sharing childhood memories, such as when Maggie and Jamie used to stare out of their tower block window and pretend that they were protecting the passerbys on the pavement below, which accelerated the audience’s level of familiarity with the characters. Coupled with a phenomenally well written script which managed to capture the fine nuances of a mother attempting to come to terms with the fact her little boy who used to carry a batman lunchbox is growing up into a young man capable of rioting. A tense and volatile relationship between a mother and teenage son, that so many can relate to was encapsulated with a great deal of naturalism so much so in parts the production felt like a documentary.
The clever use of projection that has become synonymous with Hurley’s work (also used in his critically-acclaimed production Beats) did not disappoint. The twelve white canvases onstage were arranged into columns of three, and images such as the view from their window were stretched across the entire column formation. For me, the projections were used most effectively when real-life rolling footage of the burning buildings and general pandemonium of the riots was played, instantly evoking the audience’s collective memory of households watching the news of the riots unfolding on their television screens. It felt very pertinent to be watching Chalk Farm in a London theatre, as the memories of this definitive moment in the capital’s history are still very fresh and raw.
Chalk Farm isn’t a political commentary on whether looters like Jamie were justified or not. Instead it questions the culture of blame, asking whether parents really should be held accountable for their offspring’s actions. I found revisiting the London riots two years later, once the media hysteria surrounding it has died down, really thought-provoking.
Chalk Farm was playing at The Bush Theatre as part of the Radar Festival, for future tour dates please visit the Thick Skin Theatre website.