Finborough Theatre, London – until 17 June 2017
There’s a protective spell that schoolchildren enjoy – molly coddling is commonplace, both emotionally and practically. School is one of the safest of environments in this regard, despite us often believing the contrary at the time. But there is no such protection for teachers, their pupils at times are allowed to get away with things that adults would never be permitted. But what happens when it goes too far, when the teachers reach breaking point? We are all human, after all.
Matt Parvin’s debut play JAM looks into the future, when troubled teen Kane (Harry Melling) is all grown up and back visiting teacher Bella (Jasmine Hyde), who moved schools to try and get away from the trouble he gave her and the punishment she doled on him in return. Parvin’s choice to run a real-time script that takes place all over one evening is well thought out – the background and the story is immediately established when Bella (Hyde) looks over her shoulder and sees her worst nightmare looming in the doorway. Tommo Fowler sets up the show in the first five minutes, drawing the audience in with an unease and restlessness that stalks around the set as the two circle each other like animals.
For all the power emanating from the start of the production, in which Fowler and Parvin team up to immediately ground the characters despite the abnormal situation they find themselves in, the end struggle strangely lacks the required force and impetus. It’s too expected – the final acts of physical aggression, the straws that breaks both of their backs. The final snapshot scene, where both characters turn to their respective vices and wonder where to go next, goes some way in recovering what quickly runs off track into a pastiche.
But throughout JAM there is the cemented essence of a power struggle. With bouts of strained nostalgia, each individual is determined to gain the upper ground, standing on the ramp in Emma Bailey’s design that easily and instantly shifts the dynamic of the scene. Here we realise that students will always defer to teachers, while also realising that men are intrinsically more threatening than women. The physical acts of aggression are deliciously confusing – a teacher should never hit a pupil; but this is no longer a teacher-student relationship, this is now a woman lashing out in self-defence. The pupils grow up and the teachers move on.
Hyde gives a competent show as nervous turned spiteful teacher Bella, forced to face the past she has run from for the last decade. Her defining moment is when she lets go, loses the restraint required to be a teacher and fires bile and venom at Kane both barrels. But it’s Melling that controls the entire situation. One minute an angry outburst, the next a child-like level of guilt, shame and fear, Melling constantly keeps his teacher on her toes and off kilter. Vacuous yet somewhat psychopathic, Melling is nervous and disturbed but fully capable of homing in on any sign of weakness or pressure point and attacking it with verve. Equally he exhibits a series of non-verbal ticks that only add to his menacing, unpredictable presence. This is a character that even as a child knew exactly how to manipulate everyone around him and an actor that is capable of drawing attention in an analogous manner.
The magic spell is broken when children grow up and realise that teachers are human, are flawed and aren’t as in control as they appear. Worlds shatter and reality washes away any remains of child-like innocence. Parvin’s script exposes this with startling levels of depth and detail – JAM is a show that looks through the magnifying glass at what happens after the final bell has rung.