Royal Court Theatre –until 2 January 2019
Can we, I wonder, ever learn to deplore past attitudes without being vengeful about it? Hot on the heels of Mike Bartlett’s heartfelt Snowflake, here’s another three-hander, another estranged daughter and another go at the subject of intergenerational affront and cold, angry youthful righteousness.
This, though, is a more mischievously satirical – and unsettling – imagination by Mark Ravenhill. We find Anna (Nicola Walker) a composed, professional young woman in her mid-thirties. She’s a single mother visiting her parents after a long gap: her mother is both depressedly defensive and seething with lifelong frustration (Maggie Steed gives a note-perfect performance, catching every resentment, fear and disappointment of a generation of women).
Father, a teacher on the verge of retirement after 45 years at the same school, is initially upstairs working on a rebuttal of a damning OFSTED. Parents and daughter have, we learn, become estranged because of her Academy chain, which hopes to take over the failing school and impose its frozen eyes-front silent righteousness on it. But, as also becomes clear, they never got on: Anna was an “angry child” who once threatened her father with an axe and ripped up the room. In the eerily bleak, high-ceiled set, the marks are still on the wallpaper, underlining a sense of parental stasis.
But the point is that children from Dad’s school are gathering outside, throwing bricks through the window in protest at the father (Alun Armstrong) who appears, fretting about his report and as weirdly ambiguous about his daughter as his wife is. It turns out that until the ban 30 years ago, father was deputy head and therefore responsible for caning naughty boys. There’s a ledger that proves it, complete with “parental permission” signatures and carefully recorded number of strokes (on the hand, by the way, not the backside, no skin broken).
He never liked it, as becomes clear: Armstrong gives a wonderful picture of the old-style, basically caring Mr Chips trapped in a rigid system, doing his job. Now, though, having suddenly found out this bit of pretty obvious social history and discovered that the mild teacher they know was once a “child-beater”, the new generation are hunting him down in their hundreds and carrying on as if he was Josef Mengele.
The core of the conflict and its absurdity is nicely summed up when the mother says”They’re snowflakes. These children now can hunt out anybody’s grievance and claim it as their own. They can’t stand that the past wasn’t just the same as today. If something was done differently int he past they bawl and they whine, kick and spit and attack”.
To which the pious daughter replies”Young people today are much more aware of issues relating to coercion, personal space, violence”. She suggests formal apologies to the new generation (which hasn’t personally suffered) and a safe space for them to discuss feelings. “To indulge themselves further in their introspection and self-pity” replies Mum sharply.
Sympathy and irritation swing (well, mine did) between the hidebound, slightly bullying but long-serving older generation and the almost psychopathic liberalism of the bossy modern daughter, with her pious jargon about “pupil voice” and prating about Best Practice and the inadvisability of Off Site Meetings. Not to mention a grating tendency to say “utilize” not “use’, and a millennial assumption that whatever is in the attic must be pornography, because her father being male must want some. “I wouldn’t judge”. After an hour I did wonder what Mr Ravenhill and director Vicky Featherstone would do with the remaining 45 minutes , stuck in a bleak set with three bleak people. But the drama did rise – to the point of improbability – with more argument, a minor coup-de-theatre by Chloe Langford’s set, and an increasingly violent and improbable conclusion.
The last speech also revealed the fact that the liberal-caring-personal-space daughter probably always was as mad and vindictive as a box of fascist frogs. On the way out audience members over 50 muttered about how they got leathered at school ,so what? And a nice young man next to me almost fainted when I told him that in 1965 Mother Rita in Krugersdorp used to lash out with a ruler without any parental signature.
box office royalcourttheatre.com to 26 Jan