“Everyone has problems, he just needs a good slap”
Mogadishu is a new play by Vivienne Franzmann which was one of four winners of the Bruntwood Prize, a playwriting competition. It premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where it received the royal seal of approval from my Mum and Dad and Aunty Jean but it has now transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith.
White liberal teacher Amanda intervenes in a playground fight when she sees known troublemaker Jason bullying a younger pupil at their inner-city London secondary school but finds herself pushed and shoved to the ground in the ensuing fracas. She is anxious not to see him punished though, conscious of the social consequences for uneducated young black men, but when he flips the table and accuses her of physical and racial abuse, the security of Amanda’s world is shattered with her fitness to be a teacher, even a mother, called into question.
Julia Ford plays Amanda with a powerful dignity, well-intentioned to the end no matter what the cost and her scenes with Ian Bartholomew’s acting headteacher Chris, hamstrung by a world of bureaucracy, child protection legislation and the desire to be seen to be ‘doing the right thing’ ring with a depressing honesty. Shannon Tarbet as her daughter, and also a pupil at the same school, stole the show for me with a stunning intensity as she deals with her own issues and rages at the passivity of her mother.
Franzmann’s greatest strength has been to capture the voice of teenage schoolyards so effectively as shown in a well-crafted opening scene which pulls us right into this intense and energetic world and it is expertly played by the teenage ensemble in Tom Scutt’s wire-mesh cage design. She also explores the complexities of teenage social relationships well in the way Jason is able to coerce his gang to corroborate his version of events through an uneasy mix of playing on his friendships, sexual charisma and a healthy dose of fear, Malachi Kirby’s menacing physical presence matched by a brutal manipulative streak. There’s a pleasing depth to some of these supporting characters too: Savannah Gordon-Liburd’s Dee is the most intelligent of the group and clearly uneasy with events but even she is not above unleashing venomous threats against a potential whistle-blower and I really enjoyed Farshid Rokey’s mouthy Saif, struggling under pressure from his Muslim family.
But no matter how well-drawn and convincing this group is, as the show loses its way slightly towards the end, there’s an over-reliance on the wise-cracking and posing which too often arrests the dramatic flow, meaning a couple of performances never escape the one note which grated on me a little, to be honest. And the way in which the story is pulled together at the end with a neatness which belies the messiness and the ongoing nature of the issues that are raised ends up feeling a little contrived which is a shame given the strength of what has gone before.
Mogadishu still emerges as an assured first play though and a great advert for the Bruntwood Prize, encouraging new writing and giving playwrights room for development is such a positive thing in the current climate. But there’s also something encouraging in the enduring partnership between the theatres here, ensuring there’s a supportive connectedness between different cities which makes sense publicity-wise– I know at least three people who booked for this solely on the write-ups from the Manchester run – but also means that quality drama can be shared throughout the country.