In a school playground, it isn’t always instantly obvious if children come from a variety of different backgrounds. Social class, cultural heritage, family situations are (in theory) all left at the gates in favour of hopscotch, monkey bars and football. But at the end of the school day, along come the parents, each representing all the variety that the children themselves bring to the classroom. These parents see each other for mere moments at a time and as such are acutely aware of each other. Pre-conceptions are carried through the gates until they can pick up their children and leave the school once again. Awkward and uncomfortable interactions are inevitable. Karen Morash’s Playground attempts to highlight the multitude of small-talk situations and squabbles that the parents can have, some of which have no more maturity and intelligent debate than the play-fights of their offspring.
Playground includes a wide cross-section of parental stereotypes. Working class single mum Coral (Katie Turner) accuses entitled, flighty mum, Bobbi’s son (Ava Amande) of sexually harassing her five-year old daughter. Head of the PTA and aspiring writer Elaine (Jenna Thorne) is only too happy to get involved and resolve the situation and all three parents separately turn to struggling mum-of-three Amy (Komal Amin), who is too shy and frightened to say no to any of them. Now whilst this appears to be the main concept in the first half of the story, it transpires, as the audience sit through this two-hour quagmire of academic prose, that the characters are distracted from the true problem looming over the school. Morash writes in sub-plots to divert audience attention and emphasise the myriad of minute issues that can stem from conflicting parental goals. Unfortunately the key storyline doesn’t have the requisite impact to punch through the dialogue when it needs to most and hence the whole play has a distinct lack of direction.
The saving grace are the actors, who all in all provide well characterised (and at times funny) portrayals of the diverse set of parents and their respective points of view. With the exception of Amy (Amin), who has been poorly instructed by movement director Roman Berry, the mothers are well in tune with each other. Coral (Turner) is aggressive and quick to anger, frustrated at the hand she has been dealt but unable to do anything about it. Bobbi (Amande) is suitably spoiled and grating, using her wealth and influence in the school to dodge any sticky situations and come out smelling of roses. Elaine (Thorne) is overly nice on the surface, desperate to avoid conflict whilst internally enjoying how she floats above all the petty arguments that occur. A couple of scenes are mapped out effectively – the talking stick intervention in particular finally gives some weight and focus to an otherwise scatty play. The parallels drawn between the childrens’ toys and the builders on the nearby construction site add a playful dimension, but without the impact of the main storyline they fall flat.
The school playground is uncomfortable for everyone. Children are forced to play with each other even if they have nothing in common; adults are forced to make awkward small-talk or avoid eye contact. In this case, Playground creates an unintended, additional uncomfortable environment. This time it’s for the audience, who are desperate to remove themselves from the situation at half time only to return for further exposure to an altogether wearisome production.
Playground played at The London Theatre, New Cross until 1 May 2016. For more information and future shows, see The London Theatre website.
Photo: Cameron Harle