The excitingly diverse Camden Fringe is well underway and nothing encapsulates that exciting diversity more than Naked Frank Theatre’s Before It Starts. This group of three outstanding performers takes bullying – of the homophobic kind – as its subject and sets about an intense, forensic examination of the causes, the symptoms, the fall-out and the devastating effect it can have on young lives. No punches are pulled here, no niceties are observed, there is no compromise with audience comfort zones and what in education terms has been a taboo subject is dragged unceremoniously out from the closet and given a serrated edge treatment that points the finger, yes, but that also points out the antidote.
The expert cast fuse physical theatre with innovative approaches and dialogue that is so conversationally natural and immediate that it’s difficult to believe that this piece would have gone through a long rehearsal/devising process. Carleigh-Ann Portelli’s script is writing of the highest order and brings to mind the early work of Sarah Kane in its bitingly evocative tenor and tone. Portelli doesn’t do waffle or padding and over-writing is not a concept she has in her skill-set. No, this script is taut and tense and tight – there’s no flab and there’s no room for sentimentality or self-indulgence.
School kids are horrible; and caring; and horrible; and empathetic. And horrible. Portelli and the cast get this – presumably they can draw on their own experiences – and present it in such a way that the audience gets it, and lives it, or remembers and re-lives it.
This, though, is no rambling diatribe of schoolyard memes. It’s a highly structured piece that knows it’s on a mission – a mission to inform and – whisper it softly – educate. Education is the backdrop to the social media maelstrom that emanates so easily from teenage angst. A series of educational authority figures – text-book- parroting teacher, hands-length politicians and even Nicky Morgan (remember her?) makes a guest appearance – declaim their (verbatim) wise words and profound pronouncements which come across as jarringly out of kilter with the lives and experiences of the teenagers desperately trying to decipher their lives.
Claire Louise Portelli as Lucy combines empathy with a non-judgemental outlook on life that ultimately can’t take the strain under the peer-pressure microscope. It’s a delicate, soft-touch performance which completely disappears when Claire Louise slots into authority figure mode as an educational talking head. As Lucy she is the counterpoint to the brash, in-yer-face Shannon, played with brutal effect by Rebecca Briley, who courts sympathy and dispenses rough justice in that fickle, adolescent blink of an already jaundiced eye. And all the time the scheming Rachel (Carleigh-Ann Portelli), the archetypal rat in bunny’s clothing, insidiously undermines any semblance of loyalty and comradeship amongst schoolmates and is unable to allow anything to happen that does not include her – even though she doesn’t want to be included. Carleigh-Ann’s relaxed and completely natural delivery disguises her inner Iago, ultimately wreaking havoc on innocence.
The design of the piece is simple and effectual with hanging school uniforms creating the gentle symbolism of separate lives being inextricably entwined and the set cleverly develops as the floor, starting as a blank canvas, has diagrams and words felt-tipped on as the show progresses. A simple frame is skilfully employed in the social media sequences, shadow projection is utilised and there’s a great reveal – which I won’t reveal. Thomas Cheeseman’s lighting is effectively complementary and the evocative soundtrack – from the haunting lilts of A. Himitsu to the pulsing beats of DJInterstar – creates a distinctively immersive feel to the theme. This issue is clearly a passion that is near to the hearts of this talented company and the show has been lovingly created with minute attention to every detail.
Everything is in place: enthusiasm, integrity, uncompromising message: the result is a highly effective piece of theatre. It’s rare that an audience spontaneously rises as one to applaud a show at the end. This audience did – a completely deserved ovation for an incredibly brave, meaningful and thought-provoking play. Regarding homophobic bullying Naked Frank Theatre is calling for education. It’s a call that we constantly hear politicians of all parties make – only for nothing to happen. They would all do well to see this show.
Review by Peter Yates
Before It Starts
Presented by Naked Frank
An eclectic mix of comedy, physical performance and urban characters; BEFORE IT STARTS is a bold and hard-hitting take on teenage life through the eyes of a seventeen year old.
Growing up is hard and when a new girl starts school and reveals her controversial sexuality her friends have a lot to laugh about. But when the jokes turn sour and the playful banter becomes bullying, the group realise they have a lot to be sorry for. Friendships are put to the test in this edgy, brash and full frontal take on sex, social media and school life.
This latest production by Naked Frank Theatre tackles the issue of homophobia in a witty and unapologetic nature. Inspired by the true stories of young people that have personally been bullied.
Before It Starts
Thu 4 – Sun 7 Aug 2016 at 7.15pm