The rough and tumble of secondary school life is not a time I recall with fondness by any stretch of the imagination – at the time, if anyone said, in all sincerity, that ‘school days are the best days’, I wanted to kick them where the sun doesn’t shine. But, my coordination skills being borderline non-existent (I was nearly always the one picked last whenever Physical Education consisted of team sports), I developed a reputation instead for being verbally aggressive, and probably made more enemies than friends. As Édith Piaf used to sing, “Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien“.
The teenage characters in Life Before the Line, set in 2016-17, are tamer than the pupils I had to put up with, although the play sets most of its scenes in a classroom or home setting, rather than the playground. It’s also worth pointing out the play is based in Manchester, and while this may not be everyone’s experience (indeed, it isn’t), I’ve found people of all ages considerably friendlier whenever I find myself in the North compared to how people are in the capital. Further, having sat through a play recently in which an actor played an antagonistic character so convincingly it negatively affected people’s enjoyment of the show, it’s probably just as well that civility is in abundance here. The show is not without unpleasant moments, however. One of the show’s critical incidents, in which Allister (Jack Medlin) is the victim – or, depending on how one views what happened, survivor – of a gang assault, is described rather than dramatised, while another critical incident, involving Danny (Abraham Alsalihi), is acted out and closes the first half.
It feels as though there are about as many asides to the audience in this show as there would be in a Shakespeare play (or otherwise an episode of Miranda or Fleabag) – there are things a boyfriend won’t share with his girlfriend, a child to their mother, one sibling to another, and so on, but the audience is kept abreast of it all. If anything, it could be argued that this play overdoes it: very little is left to the audience’s imagination, and those who like to conduct a bit of legwork to join all the narrative pieces together be left wanting. In the end, however, there’s nothing wrong with having everyone in the room on the same page, and the overall lack of ambiguity makes a multi-layered and multi-generational storyline relatively easy to follow.
The scale of anti-Semitism in society at large is quite revelatory – there are terrorist drills in the Jewish school in which many scenes are set, involving alarms blaring, lights out, and pupils and staff taking shelter in designated hiding places. A pupil expresses relief that “at least it’s not America” – all of the drills have, so far, been just that: drills. Esty (Emma Kentridge) doubles up as the show’s narrator, at least to begin with – the show takes on a Jersey Boys feel as the narration is eventually split four ways, between her, her best friend Sara (Arabella Alhaddad), and the aforementioned Allister and Danny.
Scene changes are very slick, and the storylines themselves proceed briskly, reflecting the youthful dynamism of its main characters. Matters of personal identity are dealt with convincingly, and the consequences of discovering one’s heritage are not always pretty. Very many facets of Jewish teenage life are laid bare, from outsmarting certain teachers, to a ‘Purim Parade’, to a harrowing taxi ride in which Sara finds herself having to be economical with the truth for her personal safety.
Allister’s story, meanwhile, turns out to be a lot more than simply being over-confident and laddish, while Danny lives with cystic fibrosis, adding to the challenges to be overcome. An insightful look at contemporary living, the play has a decent amount of humour and uplifting moments – despite the minefield of life’s obstacles faced by these characters, it’s not so grim up North after all.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Jewish teenagers Esty, Allister, Danny and Sara are sitting in a revision session about to take their GCSEs when the terrorist alarm rings. And this time, it might not be a drill. Trapped in their RS classroom, they have all the time in the world to think.
Gateforth Street, London NW8 8EH