Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Kin, Royal Court

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

2 Comments

  1. Re “It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Kin. It’s just that there’s nothing particularly righteousness about it. Crowe’s play seems concocted less out of any campaigning spirit than the desire to enhance the playwright’s own standing.”

    As an employee of the Court, and as I know the playwright rather well, nothing could be further from the truth.
    Similar cynical questions about the Court's playwrights & programming were scattered across the blogosphere at the beginning of the year when Bola Agbaje's 'Off the Endz' graced the Theatre Downstairs. Then it was the question of the Court's apparent zeal for 'ghetto' plays by black writers.
    Likewise, during the Wallace Shawn season in 2008, eyebrows were raised about the theatre's attention to American playwrights, as if young British voices were in danger of becoming marginalised.
    It wasn't that long ago that the Royal Court was being accused of producing too many working class council-estate set dramas either.
    It seems that no other British theatre has the same level of scrutiny levelled at it than the Court (which is probably a compliment), but your prognosis does appear to be based on a tiny proportion of the theatre's actual output.
    Whatever your criticisms of the play, it seems reductive and ill-informed to accuse the theatre or the playwright of having some kind of cynical, fetishised agenda.

  2. Leo, hello – thanks for your comment.

    I think you're right that no other theatre (except perhaps the National) comes under the same scrutiny as the Court, but I would also say that you're right to see that as a compliment. Given its central position, both currently and on account of its history, I would say that to do so is right.

    Particularly given the current output, which I would not describe as “a cynical, fetishised agenda.” I would, however, call it an agenda of sorts. You claim that I have based such thoughts on “a tiny proportion of the theatre's actual output.” That might be true if one takes a long-term view. However, by my reckoning, there have been 7 plays that aim directly (though not always exclusively) at a similar territory since this time last year: Kin, Tribes, Wanderlust, Clybourne Park, Spur of the Moment, Posh & The Priory. To that, arguably and more tenuously, one could add Ingredient X and Cock.

    That, I believe, in no way represents a tiny proportion. Indeed, I would say that it verges towards an overwhelming majority.

    Perhaps, admittedly, it is unfair to accuse Miss Crowe of a certain self-interested cynicism, but I do believe that the theatre can be judged according to its output. That, indeed, is why the theatre has soared under Mr Cooke's artistic direction. My concern, however, is that the balance has, in recent months, tipped and the Court is in danger of cultivating a one-track mind and a one-class system.

    (Admittedly, the recently announced new season looks like a change in direction.)

    Best,
    Matt

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