Sket, Park Theatre

What sort of trouble would you have got into as a teenager if you were equipped with today’s technology? It’s a frightening thought. What with the teenage brain’s late-developing understanding of consequences and a world outside their own immediate gratification, it’s no wonder sexting is a thing. Insecure teenagers wanting to impress their crushes, an over-inflated sense of self and peer pressure brews a potentially deadly, life ruining combination in the presence of a smart phone. Maya Sondhi’s Sket is a snapshot of the perils of urban, working class teenaged life and the consequences of poverty, boredom and hormones constantly plugged into the Internet. A cast of seven depict a pretty spot-on representation of young people’s emotional lives, but Sondhi’s play seems to take a dim view of troubled teens and the adults that work with them. Painting her young people as a bunch of sex-crazed, badly behaved tearaways and their teacher as useless and boundary crossing is not only hugely generalised but a potentially harmful stereotype.

JC (Tom Ratcliffe) has a cousin who runs a porn site, and JC helps him out by manipulating his female school mates into sending him explicit photos and videos. Emily (Laura Gardiner), Daisy (Olivia Elsden) and Tamika (Tessie Orange-Turner) are friends who are just as bad as each other, but quick to judge and pair up against the odd one out of the three. JC’s backed up by the charmingly insecure Adam (Dave Parry) and Leo (Romario Simpson), who know what JC is doing is wrong, but aren’t confident enough to stand up for themselves. The six young actors are believable London estate kids most of the time, and have some nice moments of conflict and comraderie. There are a few accent slips into middle class Home Counties, but these are rare. It’s typical teenaged tribal warfare, but when the girls discover their photos and videos are online, they aren’t strong enough to maintain a tough facade. Their teacher Miss (Anna O’Grady) tries to get information out of them, but manages to be completely inappropriate most of the time and makes no mention of referring the girls to a higher power what with the information she does glean from them – a huge misrepresentation of teachers and support workers, who proactively combat the consequences of sexting.

A horrific end reinforces how brutal children can be towards each other, but it is needlessly bleak. A lack of resolution indicates that these kids will never escape the boys vs. girls revenge cycle and grow up into functional adults. Considering most kids are decent human beings trying to get through life regardless of their backgrounds, Sket paints them at their worst. A few moments of kinship and tears aren’t enough amongst the horror. Whilst sexting and revenge porn is certainly a problem, Sondhi doesn’t show any of the work that is done to fight it by schools, police and social services. The distrustful relationship between teenagers and their teachers is also hugely inaccurate. Individual scenes are well-written and the characters are otherwise believable, but the overall message the script communicates is frankly wrong.

That said, it’s a good production otherwise. Director Prav MJ keeps her staging simple in order to focus on the characters and their conflicts. Simple projections indicate location, and school uniforms reinforce the characters’ youth. There’s no set, but it isn’t particularly needed in a small venue. The script could certainly do with a wider range of material in order to diffuse the negativity and to add is some degree of resolution, but it wouldn’t take much to turn around the play’s attitude and make a really great story.

Sket runs until 14 May.

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Blue on Blue, Tristan Bates Theatre

There’s been a lot of attention on the lack of diversity in theatre lately. White, middle class, able-bodied males dominate theatre and the industry is finally beginning to see that it’s a problem. More diverse work is now creeping into the spotlight, as it should, but it’s usually labelled as “BAME theatre”, “working class theatre”, disabled theatre” or whatever the appropriate qualifier happens to be. That’s all fine in the short term, but if theatre wants to make true progress in diversity, it needs to move away from these labels and have a diverse cast in plays of all genres, time periods and topics. Theatre needs to aspire to be just “theatre” that is blindly inclusive of race, gender, dis/ability.

Chips Hardy’s Blue on Blue does just that. The play is fundamentally about mental health in a domestic drama setting, but happens to have a character who’s a double amputee and wheelchair user. It’s not about Moss’ disability, but his relationship with his nephew Carver, who is struggling to build a normal life as a self harmer with OCD. This little, well-made play with great performances is the sort of theatre that truly works towards championing diversity.

Daniel Gentely as Carver is a tormented 30-something trying to put his life back together after falling on hard times. He’s got a job at a garden centre and some carer responsibilities for his uncle whom he lives with, Ronnie Moss (Darren Swift), and things are on the up. But he can’t cope when the world flits beyond his control, even though he desperately tries to engage in “normal” activities, like going out with his mates or fucking Moss’ carer Marta (Ida Bonnast) in Moss’ wheelchair in the middle of the night. His defensive banter and tough guy exterior with Moss eventually give way to a rewardingly vulnerable core. This transition is lovely and shows both Gentely’s range as a performer and validates male emotional need. Swift’s similarly hardened outside, which categorises people into one of the “five kinds of cunts in the world” and wants to be left alone by his overbearing nephew, abruptly gives way to genuine care and warmth. Bonnast also has the opportunity to show some great emotional contrast as the Hungarian care worker studying accountancy who genuinely wants the best for everyone, and the three display a wonderfully consistent chemistry in the hardest and easiest of moments. 

Hardy’s script follows a conventional, linear structure which works well for following his characters’ journeys. It’s a character-driven story that, though just over an hour, has three scenes that are essentially miniature acts. Though the narrative arc is fairly smooth, it’s steep and could adapt well to lengthening. It harks back to Miller, Williams, and the like but doesn’t feel old-fashioned in the least. It’s a current play, with modern issues, families and their messed up baggage. The two scene changes are needlessly long, but other than this, faults are few.

Blue on Blue, though conventional in style still feels progressive with its inclusivity. Hardy’s intuitive dialogue and similar ability from the cast make this a strong play deserving of a solid future.

Blue on Blue runs through 14 May.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.