One of the great privileges of our society is the provision of a free education, an incredible opportunity to build the tools we need in life. The standard of that varies greatly of course, but nevertheless school life is an experience we all share, and one that at times can seem to be a defining point of our lives.
This is exactly what is so relatable in Helena Fox’s Tectonic Plates, performed at The Chelsea Theatre this month as part of KENSINGTON + CHELSEA Festival. Taking place in real-time during the length of a geography class, GIRL (played by Fox) explains the highs and lows of her educational experience – dissecting the intricacies of social life and unknowingly exploring her own internal struggles with her appearance, sexuality, and what is most certainly an eating disorder.
Written and performed with a sharp comic tongue, Fox delivers her monologue as though it were a candid exposé. Mature in her attitude, she builds a quick rapport with the audience as she cuts through the voiceover teacher, all the while maintaining a youthful innocence in her demeanour and contemplation.
The black box theatre is simply set by designer and illustrator Amberlilly Ewbank, with a single school desk seated below an ever-present clock and a projector screen. Starting with a rather bland workbook slide, the projection changes throughout the show to compliment the story, developing the slides with GIRL’s doodles and sketches – some irrelevant but others painting vivid images of the people around her.
Though the set certainly lends itself to the reality of the scene, it does little to help director Alice Croft who settles for something far too static, as though it is for television. Always dragging GIRL back to the chair, the set forces the energy down when it should be picked up, bouncing from character to character, and highlighting the more sensitive areas of the text for us. There is, however, a great sense of isolation created by giving so much space around the character, making her feel like she is caught in a great vacuum of darkness, reflecting the insecurities that she battles.
Fox furnishes the text with a treasure trove of material that is all so familiar, digging through those horrible pubescent years as we struggle to break out from the shell of childhood and find our place in a new harsher world. Her attitude toward her peers and teachers is very telling at times and seems to be fluid as she progresses through the 45 minutes.
It can be very hard to watch how callous GIRL can be at times, and at other times how sensitive, a complex mesh of characteristics that feels so horribly wrong and yet so truthful. As a play exploring the psyche of teens and the increasing struggles they face in a modern world, it’s a very interesting piece. However, looking at it as a viewpoint on state education and its place within society, it feels far too cynical and harsh. I would like to think that this is because it’s been penned as if through the eyes of immaturity, though it’s a difficult line to see.
Whilst the details are specific to GIRL, the overall message of the piece feels universal of school life, as though anyone could be interviewed on their experience and come to roughly the same conclusion, irrespective of their personal anxieties. It also feels hopeful; those things that seem so big to us at one time are the things that build us into who we are destined to be. Though it could do with some refining to find a more suitable rhythm, the piece is certainly a worthy watch.
Tectonic Plates was performed at The Chelsea Theatre on 25 August. The show was part of KENSINGTON + CHELSEA FESTIVAL, for more information visit their website.