Review: Kin, Royal Court
Published on Culture Wars, 29.11.2010
Those prone to cynicism might suggest that, by tackling the rancorous trappings of an all-girls boarding school, E.V. Crowe had her heart set on a Royal Court debut. Both the setting and its brazen handling, which includes some vicious bullying and some mild lesbianism, are so obviously in line with Dominic Cooke’s manifesto against the middle-classes that it must have set the Court’s literary department salivating. That her foul-mouthed, sexualized protagonists – angry young schoolgirls both – are only ten years old seems deliberately affronting, as if she’s trying to trump the troubled teens of Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss.
It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Kin. It’s just that there’s nothing particularly righteous about it. Crowe’s play seems concocted less out of any campaigning spirit than the desire to enhance the playwright’s own standing.
Perhaps it is churlish to scuff the polish of the Court’s recent success, but one can’t help but consider the wider implications of the theatre’s voguishness. Might it be affecting the causes being tackled by our playwrights? One can easily imagine the country’s literary agents racking their brains for Court-friendly topics and cooking up a new genre: the Smallbone kitchen-sink drama.
Boarding schools apparently took on record numbers in the wake of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Crowe hogwashes the seduction of Hogwarts. (At one point, the staunch housemistress pointedly deducts five mysterious points.) Instead Crowe presents a hostile environment that, thanks to the unspoken law against squealing, is immune to change. The school’s décor – perfectly captured by the excellent Bunny Christie – is blanched and damp. There is not a flourish of comfort to be seen amidst the swing doors and strip lights.
Roommates Mimi (a slightly precocious Maya Gerber) and Janey (Madison Lygo, superb) sit cross-legged on the their bunkbed and talk like miniature, school-uniformed versions of Pete & Dud. Mimi (take note of those syllables) is the school’s golden girl: bright, well-turned out and recently cast as John Proctor in the school play. Janey is, publicly at least, a bully. Behind the closed doors of the dorm, however, her own insecurities and intimidations come to light.
Crowe’s over-deliberate insertion of The Crucible elevates the school authorities’ attempt at pastoral care into a witch hunt. Mrs B, played like a clenched fist by Annette Badland, stomps through the dorms patrolling for evidence of mischief. In an attempt to root out bullying, she prosecutes her girls – whom she describes as “small dogs” and “ferrets” – attempting to extract confessions.
Really, though, Kin is overly reliant on an inverse nostalgia; a fondness not for the glowing delights of youth, but for cruelties overcome. These trials, after all, are what shaped us into our adult forms. They are character-building and we look on them with a warped affection. That Crowe peppers her world with totemic remnants – tuck boxes, metal lockers, the stinging brevity of the phone-call home and, most sentimentally of all, ‘Once in Royal David’s city’ – shows the emotional manipulation at play. For those already set against the boarding school system, there is nothing revelatory to enhance their case.
Aside from our in-built attraction or repulsion, Crowe depends upon the juxtaposition of angelic delights and their foul mouths. It’s the old Royal Court trope of all-too-adult children, as the girls display unexpected cruelty (though the enforced exposing handstand is a canny image) and early-onset sexuality, racing to reach puberty’s finish-line. I suspect director Jeremy Herrin knows as much. He struggles to find any truthfulness within, caught between emphasizing its cartoonish calamities and straightly playing its moments of simple poignancy.
With education so prominent in the news at the moment, the classroom and the playground undoubtedly have a place on our stages. In retreating to the easy divisiveness of the dorm, however, Crowe has missed the matter’s urgency. We shall have to hold out more hope for the forthcoming Schools Season at the Bush.
Photograph: Johan Persson