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Review of Schism at Park Theatre London

Athena Stevens and Jonathan McGuinness - Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
Athena Stevens and Jonathan McGuinness – Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

Playwrights like to manipulate people. When they pen a show, they will write certain characters from certain angles in order to get the audience to feel a certain way about them. Sometimes, this is just something that happens, based on where the show is meant to go. Sometimes though, this audience manipulation is a deliberate act on the part of a playwright determined to make the audience think a certain way. A prime example of this can be found in Athena Stevens play Schism which has just opened at the Park Theatre.

Schism is the story of two people and their twenty-year relationship together. It starts back in Chicago in 1998 where failed architect turned maths teacher Harrison (Jonathan McGuinness) is contemplating suicide in his small house. As the radio fills the air with the ‘wise words’ of Shumaker, Harrison starts to swallow tablets. He goes on doing this until he is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of 14-year-old high school student Katherine DeWitt (Athena Stevens). Understandably shocked that Katherine has broken into his house, Harrison demands to know why she is there. Katherine explains that she wants to move into his class. She feels she is not being given the education she is entitled to because she was put into ‘Special Ed’. She is there because when she was five years old, she was assessed as being ‘developmentally delayed’ because she couldn’t play with blocks, which is hardly surprising as she is physically disabled. Mentally, however, she is easily a match for Harrison and he eventually does what she wants by getting her into the more mainstream school studies. Thus begins a tempestuous twenty-year relationship between the two, which culminates on an evening where Katherine is being lauded for her visionary architectural work and Harrison is planning a surprise for his oh so successful pupil.

First things first then, Athena Stevens has penned an extremely clever and hard-hitting play with Schism. The story of Katherine and Harrison is really nicely written so that every excerpt from their life makes perfect, if at times extremely uncomfortable, sense. Reading the notes afterwards, it was interesting how my reaction appeared to be different from the playwright’s intentions. I didn’t really like either character that much. I found them both to be a little too focussed on themselves and not enough on each other. I also spent a lot of time wondering what had happened to Katherine’s parents. Apart from a brief mention in the first act, they were never talked about which struck me as surprising. I don’t have children myself but I’m sure if I had a 14-year-old child I would be questioning how much time they were spending in the company of their teacher outside of school. However, that is a minor quibble with the plot.

Anna Reid has put together a set that merges the twin needs to create a living space for Harrison and provide enough room for Katherine to manipulate a wheelchair, and Dan Saggars lighting is very effective in splitting the time between now and the various flashback scenes. Full credit to Director Lily McLeish and Fight Director RC Annie for the way that the cast moves around the stage. Realism seems to be the watchword of this production in writing, setting and acting. In fact, it was so realistic that during the horrific event that occurs in Act II – no spoilers – I actually turned away from the stage to avoid seeing what was happening.

Of course, writing and staging can do so much but, to be a hit the cast have to really give their all and both Jonathan and Athena put their body and soul into this production. The two of them work extremely well together and there is obviously a lot of affection between them which gives their performance added realism once the relationship between Katherine and Harrison really takes off. Jonathan makes Harrison one of those guys that on the outside seems to be everyone’s mate, a nice amiable bloke that everyone gets on with and is always willing to lend a hand. Underneath, however, he is one of those chaps that will do someone a good turn then go on about it forever and needs constant validation from those around him. Katherine, on the other hand, is a very determined character who is going places and is not going to let anything or, possibly, more importantly, anybody stop her from succeeding. Whatever the obstacle, be it her disability, her family or Harrison, Athena’s Katherine will flush them all away in the pursuit of her dream.

I’m not going to say that Schism is a perfect play. As with every show, there are things that, to my mind, don’t quite work. I do believe it was slightly long and that, as a consequence, the pace dipped a little in the first act. However, it did have some excellent plot points – I loved the explanation of why we put together Ikea furniture – and, although you may never really like Katherine or Harrison, you can see why they are together and what each initially gets out of the relationship. You can also see the moment where the balance of power changes and the fall-out from that seismic shift. Well, written, presented and acted, Schism is certainly one to see this year.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Schism is a play by Athena Stevens, a groundbreaking playwright with cerebral palsy. Athena’s mainstream cannon of work speaks to the experience of disability in the human condition. Questioning the power dynamics between genders and abilities; at its heart, Schism is a play about two people finding each other, asking at what point dreams and relationships become unrealistic or out of date.

Failed architect Harrison had plans to end his life. The last thing he needed was Katherine, a young student with cerebral palsy, breaking into his house begging for his help…

As their chaotic first encounter turns into the beginning of a twenty-year relationship, the unlikely couple grow to realise that they are capable of either building something great together – or absolutely destroying each other.

LISTINGS
SCHISM
Park 90, Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP
Dates: 16 May – 9 Jun 2018
https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/

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