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46

Flatpacktheatre’s adaptation of James Graham’s 2011 play “Bassett” leaves the Fringe today, but let us toss a few roses after the wagon. A Fringe theatre, this time the Spaces on North Bridge, has been once again infiltrated by high school kids. Yet Flatpack are not an in-house school company but some sort of community initiative from Hertfordshire. Whatever intelligence lies behind this organisation has cherry-picked a cast of talented 17 and 18 year old actors. The resulting production turns out to be ambitious and entertaining.

I have not seen Graham’s original play, but I believe that Flatpack have trimmed it down from a cast of fourteen to eleven. The setting is Royal Wootton Bassett: the Wiltshire town which the coffins of repatriated British servicemen famously passed through on their way to RAF Lyneham (prior to this base’s closure in 2011). The body of a glamorous local youth named Charlie is being brought home on the day of the story. We join some of the pupils from his former school, who have been locked in their classroom by an absconding supply teacher. They are desperate to attend the repatriation, but there is no way out.

Not far beneath the swearing and apparent disrespect, all of these kids are decent and they have their heads screwed on. The acting is accomplished and the quality and variety of performances help to glue this play into a tight product. Connor Janes is particularly striking as the young patriot Leo, who tries to stare down his schoolmates’ opposition with authentic white-van outrage. Yet the writing itself is less convincing.

Graham’s strategy is to harry his characters through a succession of unusual and revealing scenarios. It turns out that the kids are sceptical of their British citizenship classes because they are being taught by an Indian teacher. We find that her lesson plans are constructed from Wikipedia articles. One of the kids (Harry Mackie) is an air cadet and there is an uneasy scene in which he is forced to march by his appreciative schoolmates. A Muslim pupil (Tanya Nayee) suddenly needs to pray, but quite unexpectedly these ostensibly bigoted kids will allow her to melt into the background. I feel guilty at having misjudged them.

The trouble is that these characters blunder through each challenge in a condition of increasing bafflement. We travel only half way down a line of thought: the pupils remain proud British militarists, and it is merely all of their wars which seem to be wrong. Graham tries to stay even-handed, and so his characters end up reciting somewhat inconsequential opinions about Iraq, racism, and British citizenship at each other. In the superbly choreographed final scene, Leo goes up for good, in a display of explosive drama. But there is no way back down again and Graham resorts to some ropey oratory to wrap up the play.

Mind you, there is a grandiloquent metaphor somewhere within “Bassett.” A bunch of bickering children locked in a prison – what a perfect metaphor for British, or indeed any kind of nationalism.

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