[The following contains spoilers.]
With its sticky bars and dank Gothic brickwork, the Cowgate Underbelly should seem like a nightclub, but it actually has the atmosphere of a bustling college on a Monday morning. There are lots of boisterous young men standing about and everybody is either lost or waiting in queues as if outside lecture halls. Consigned to a long queue, we all slowly wind into a theatre which the staff will pack as laboriously as a suitcase.
The Underbelly is expanding into an industrialised version of the Traverse, in choosing to show fashionably-themed and decidedly televisual dramas. Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin’s “Chalk Farm” is both of these and a lot worse. Our designated contemporary theme is the 2011 riots, in which London got slapped about a bit. The writers’ first mistake is to assume that because the riots featured explosions and street-fighting, they were somehow dramatic. The London riots were in the end inconsequential; like a cloud of gnats, they involved thousands of petty flutterings all rolled into one. The writers’ second mistake is to assume that the riots need to be somehow explained to the world through theatre.
The idea of a mother choosing to take the wrap for her teenaged son’s crime is an appealing starting point. This is indeed a “spoiler,” but I have to mention the deft way in which “Chalk Farm” is wound up because the plotting is the only good thing that it has going for it. The play is otherwise as eloquent as a pool of vomit. Its characters are awesomely unsympathetic and, thankfully, wholly implausible.
Maggie (Julia Taudevin) is a gormless fishwife; her fourteen year old son Jamie (Thomas Dennis) is a little sunshine and her “pickle.” So that we can educate ourselves about the London riots, let us put aside the jargon of experts, analysts, and (heaven forfend) politicians, and join the company of these unassuming, ordinary people. It seems that ordinary people are by definition unremarkable, for this pair will not say anything profound or noteworthy between them throughout the entire show. You might think that this would make them monumental bores, but no: they are authentic.
Theatregoers as sophisticated as ourselves need to see something of our own world reflected in the lives of these ordinary people, else their story might become incomprehensible. Henceforth Maggie will occasionally pass comment upon Ed Miliband and David Cameron, in the vein of a medieval peasant muttering about the “great lord master” up the hill.
Jamie has stolen a bottle of wine in the riots to give to his Mum as a present. Because, bless his ten toes, he’s too simple to know any better. His character is like an overgrown version of a toddler from “Kids Say the Funniest Things.” His Mum finds the wine under his bed and she nobly volunteers to go to prison on his behalf. But why not just tip it down the sink? Or put it back under the bed and forget about it? Because these are simple ordinary people and they do not have brains like us. Learn from them – learn from the noble savage and their authentic existence!
In the past Keiran Hurley has apparently won a Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland. “Chalk Farm” and its dire writing should put an end to this. As a Scot, it cannot have escaped Hurley’s notice that Edinburgh did not suffer any riots in 2011, doubtlessly because we have the Fringe. But if theatregoers are roaming out of plays as bad as “Chalk Farm,” then shops could get smashed up and police bottled. The social fabric is under threat!