School playgrounds. It’s a warzone out there. That’s at least the impression given by Mogadishu, written by former teacher Vivienne Franzmann, set in an inner-city London school.
And when white teacher Amanda finds herself wrongfully accused by a black student Jason, who assaulted her, things swiftly degenerate. Race, class, bureaucracy and smartphones – who’d be a teacher?
We see the ramifications as things go from bad to worse for Amanda, who won’t hear a word against Jason and refuses to lodge a complaint against him, knowing that expulsion awaits him if she does. Instead she relies on the hassled, inept Chris who – as acting Head – has his work cut out against a mountain of Quangos, combative parents and Jason’s gang, coerced into submitting identical stories that back up Jason’s.
Jackie Clune is believable as a gullible white middle class teacher – at least until she’s still making improbable excuses for Jason as her career and domestic life collapse around her ears – and rarely sympathetic as a first deluded and then vengeful protagonist. In the first half of the play Amanda is presented pretty much as the Daily Mail’s editor imagines Guardian readers; it’s only a surprise she doesn’t light some incense and start weaving a hemp sarong.
Daughter Becky is a walking tower of common sense, almost to the point where it stretches credulity that she is so smart and her mother so dumb. She’s precocious but damaged and as the wheels come off for Amanda at home, her daughter starts unravelling at home, but not before a far-fetched scene where Becky confronts Jason with knowledge of his former tragedy, a set of bandaged limbs and some cod psychology.
Far more interesting that the hum-drum class and race angst at home – where Becky does what the audience wishes it could do and spends most of her time screaming at her mother for being such an idiot; and Amanda’s black partner Paul tiptoes around being a handy catalyst for hinted-at racial tensions – are the playground scenes with Jason and his mates.
These scenes spark with energy thanks to a near-flawless young cast and the dialogue has a definite ring of authenticity, but beyond the ciphers – the thick one, the funny one, the nerdy one – it’s only as Jason, played wonderfully by Ryan Calais Cameron, who’s close to being a fleshed out character.
While these scenes are wonderful, they also pull Mogadishu around as violently as Jason roughs up his gang. One minute it’s laugh-out-loud funny; the next we’re dealing with some hideous, repressed trauma or the suggested domestic abuse that Jason endures at the hands of his exasperated, brooding father. Back and forth it seesaws, making for something of a queasy feeling.
Perhaps that’s the reality of life in the playground, in South London or any inner-city school. Brutality, poverty, boredom, loyalty, betrayal and knob jokes.
Mogadishu doesn’t offer any answers. Yes, there’s insight as far as the stultifying bureaucracy of modern education and the realities of playground politics, but there are also characters as two-dimensional as a blackboard and handy conclusions that veer towards soap-opera melodrama.
There are problems, but they tend to lie with the script, not the production. The enduring images of Mogadishu will be its young cast, fizzing off one another – zipping out lines that will be as alien to some as Somali – providing us with a gripping portrayal of school life gone wrong. Unman, Wittering and Zigo meets The Inbetweeners.
This modern take on an old theatrical staple is funny and fascinating, even if it is flawed.
Until 4 February