Before It Starts by Naked Frank Theatre at Blue Elephant Theatre | Review
Don’t go to this play… unless you want to get poked in the eye, slapped round the head, smacked in the gob and kneed in the crotch: but if you’re brave enough and hard enough then this show is definitely for you. I’m talking metaphorically of course but Naked Frank Theatre delivers a hard-hitting, provocative and excoriating drama that explores, in great depth, the causes and the effects of homophobia.
There’s an immersive preamble when an innocent looking schoolgirl asks members of the audience as they enter to nominate their suggestions for words that begin with certain letters and which don’t normally appear in crosswords. I was allocated “F” and in my traditional Teresa May-type fashion I suggested “fudge”. Close… but no cigar. One thing is certain, though, there’s no fudge in this show. The script delves deep into the sexual politics of the classroom taking us way beyond the nitty-gritty: here we have the full and explicit naming of parts – and that’s just the polite stuff.
Hosting us through this maelstrom of rabid sexual mores are three brilliant performers who extract every iota of mirth, innuendo, schoolgirl innocence and eventual pathos from Carleigh-Ann Portelli’s inspirational script. Whilst the script is the template it is clear that this show is devised, honed and fine-tuned in rehearsal the result being completely natural dialogue, depth of characterisation and a narrative in which every word has weight and counts towards the meticulously explored theme.
Claire Louise Portelli is Lucy, the gabby but affectionate innocent abroad who isn’t the brightest candle on the cake and whose sole snippet of info picked up from sex education classes revolves around “Filipino tubes”. She also has to ask how to spell PHSE… Portelli (CL) is vivid, funny and authentic – her knowing looks, chirpy asides and mischievous winks engage and involve the audience throughout the show. Targeted by Lucy for a conspiratorial sotto voce joke whilst the Head Teacher was blithering on – and then scolded for it – I almost felt I was back at chool. Almost.
Shannon is the swat, the intelligent thinker who wants to be one of the girls but lives in fear that her mother will kill her for each of the latest in a growing number of institutional mis-steps. Rebecca Briley, with her swat glasses and outmoded pony-tail, plays this to the hilt, all firebrand enthusiasm and gung-ho gusto until succumbing to peer pressure lands her, once again, in hot water where Briley shows an effective contrast in her light-switch swap to guilt-complex. It’s a punchy but considered performance from Briley, one that underlines the dilemma facing the social media generation every day.
As Rachel, we have in writer Carleigh-Ann Portelli a real class act. Gum-chewing, smart-phone wielding, uniform-rules ignoring high-priestess of school-yard intrigue, she’s the catalyst for everything good and exciting that happens to liven up the school-day drudgery and, inevitably, the catalyst for when things go horribly wrong. Sassy, popular, insolent and mocking, her one-liners either have you in stitches or cut you to the quick: she’s the real-deal as agent provocateur. Portelli (C-A) has this apparently innate ability to appear as indomitable friend-for- life whilst harbouring her own personal version of the dark net. She’s actually trouble but she’d be the last to recognise it. And her mimicking of the schoolmarmish, dictionary-bound, totally inflexible and woefully unintuitive sex-education teacher is one of many highlights in Portelli’s performance.
Rachel is the Queen of Banter. And, ultimately, although Before It Starts is a sensitive and sympathetic exploration of homophobia, it’s actually, when it comes down to it, all about banter.
There’s nothing wrong with banter, of course, until it crosses the line. Trouble is no one – especially in school – knows where the line is – until it’s been crossed. Then there is no going back: we’re into apologies and recriminations and suspensions and regret.
It’s a difficult nut to crack and this play, without ever resorting to sledgehammers, makes a fair fist of it. There’s a living/evolving graffiti wall which benefits from effective lighting by Thomas Cheeseman and some excellent accompanying music by Dennis Pettard, components of a play that is funny and true, explicit and cruel but, I believe, identifies and understands the problem. With understanding comes insight and Before It Starts should be shown, in my view, in schools – yes, as part of the PHSE programme. PHSE (there’s no “y” in it, Lou) tends to be – how can I put this – a little on the boring-snoring side – but I can vouch that no-one’s going to be allowed to drift off in this show.
Review by Peter Yates
Before It Starts is a brutal and unforgiving take on teenage life, sex, social media and friendships told through physical theatre and clowning.
When a new girl starts school and reveals her controversial sexuality her friends have a lot to laugh about. But when the jokes turn sour and the playful banter becomes bullying, the group realise they have a lot to be sorry for. Unlike other conventional homophobia stories that pity the victim, Before It Starts approaches this story from the bully’s point of view, making them likeable, funny, charismatic and oblivious of their own actions.
So sit back, relax and get ready for the rawest, funniest and most offensive ride of your life. It’s playful, it’s honest, it’s daring, it’s an education for all! Oh, and remember, it’s based on true events and real life accounts!
Tuesday 8 May – Thursday 10 May