Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, and re-imagined and devised by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I had mixed expectations. One of which was a flashback to the time I’d watched the film adaptation, Precious, that made me shake so much and sob that I wound up falling off the bed, laptop akimbo. Armed with my waterproof mascara I piled on more expectation: my big fat fanatical respect for the New Diorama and the director Catherine Alexander. I also have a soft spot for graduating/in training actors: they’ve got a brand spanking new tool belt of skills, untainted ambition, unfogged drive, fighting fresh with bucket loads of talent (in most cases).
Both the cast and the production team are comprised of students from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. In the spirit of collaboration, Push is an ensemble piece, and I love an ensemble piece more than the next man, jam-packed with multi-rolling, multi-disciplined performance, pushing audience preconceptions aside to make way for a bit of imagination as they sell us, by telling us, one story.
The story is about Claireece Precious Jones (Shanice Sewell), a teenager pregnant with her second child, fathered by her own father. She is illiterate, overweight and beaten by her mother (Emma Hanson) who uses her to keep the welfare money rolling in. The much needed ray of light comes in the form of Precious’s enrolment in an alternative ‘Each One Teach One’ school. Here, she learns to read and write thanks to Ms Rain (Erica Jeffrey) and, perhaps more importantly, meets people whose lives haven’t been so plain sailing either. She has landed a support network giving her hope that her future won’t stay stagnant in the rut of her past.
Push opens with the cast explaining how their production will work, how the audience will be expected to use their imagination to put weight on characters, change their genders and accept multiple roles. All well and good, but it makes for a slow start to what is a slap in the face kind of play. If you have to explain it, it suggests that you’re not going to do enough to show it. The whole opening section was rendered unnecessary when their style and sentiments were shown with masses of conviction.
With subject matters that, let’s face it, could do with lightening up a bit, the direction and design gave us colour and cleverness continuously. The use of animation and projection was responsible for bringing Push to life – eye-catching and intriguing without ever being detracting. That’s a pretty tough nail to hit square on the head. Set in the 1980s, they brought the theme to the stage in the form of neon leg-warmers, Lycra, dance moves and even roller skates. In some areas the 80s takeover was over the top, particularly with Precious’s paedophilic, incestuous, crack-addicted father (Haraldur Stefansson) being portrayed as a Freddie Mercury-esque character, gyrating across the stage in tight jeans, a vest and screeching inaudibly into a microphone. This completely diminished specific moments within the narrative and undermined the poignancy and brutality of his actions. I found that a lot of the big moments were rushed through and shoe-horned into dance routines, perhaps as a deliberate ploy to stop us tearing up at our seats.
Hanson, as Precious’s mother, was unfeeling and selfish, giving a controlled and flawless performance. She remained in an armchair throughout – we don’t even see her face until the bitter end – and yet every line uttered seemed to thump me in the gut as she drilled deeper and deeper into the mental and physical abuse of her own daughter.
By the end, I didn’t feel upset – I didn’t even well up (unusual for me) – but I did feel angry. I felt angry about the treatment of Precious and the injustice that follows her around without ever letting up. I felt angry that people like this exist, strive and struggle in every neighbourhood and I have the cheek to worry about whether or not I’m wearing waterproof mascara.
Push is playing at New Diorama Theatre until 14 March. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama website.