Vivienne Franzmann’s debut play was well-received at its world preem in Manchester earlier this year, but this planned London transfer does it few favors. The play is clearly intended as a harsh expose of racial tension in a contempo London school, but, as performed on the Lyric Hammersmith’s big proscenium stage, the material feels overwritten and overplayed. Despite attempts to provide a sense of social context, Matthew Dunster’s production ends up spectacularizing the hateful phenomena it seeks to condemn.
Franzmann has a dozen years’ experience teaching drama in London schools, and “Mogadishu” has the feel of frontline reportage. Catalyst for the action is a schoolyard incident in which black teenager Jason (Malachi Kirby) shoves white teacher Amanda (Julia Ford) to the ground when she tries to intervene in a fight, but claims that Amanda pushed and racially abused him. The play charts the unfolding fallout as Jason’s friends and father (Fraser James) support his allegations, and Julia is suspended.
Dunster somewhat mitigates the play’s episodic nature, and underlines the interconnectedness of the characters’ lives by having actors execute scene changes and arrive onstage before they’re called on to speak. Tom Scutt’s set – a revolving, circular metal cage – further communicates that characters are trapped in a deteriorating situation.
In the Manchester Royal Exchange’s in-the-round space, this sense of surveillance and mutual implication must inevitably have extended to include auds. But here, performers strain to bridge the gap between Lyric stage and auditorium by playing at excessively high registers of volume and emotion, adding to an increasing sense of melodrama, as Julia’s precocious, troubled daughter Becky (Shannon Tarbet) takes it on herself to avenge her mother. Finally, a hinted-at secret is eventually revealed – both Jason’s mother and Becky’s father took their own lives. This focus on the personal and coincidental makes it difficult to read this story as a metaphor for a larger societal condition.
Individual scenes, particularly of witty but foul-mouthed student banter, run on at length without plot being advanced or tension raised; a firmer dramaturgical hand might have transformed this into a much more effective one-act.
“Mogadishu” was one of four scripts awarded the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2008, but its portrait of racial division and social exclusion feels dated, and overly schematic; a fresher play on similar themes, John Donnelly’s “The Knowledge”, played at London’s Bush less than two months ago. Presenting familiar problems, without exposing nor exploring the deeper inequities underlying them, makes for ineffective, if not exploitative, programming.