Chalk Farm is the first high-profile piece of theatre to consider the consequences of the riots and looting that ignited main cities in Britain last summer. I find this fairly surprising, as the events feel like particularly fertile grounds for the sort of social commentary drama currently in vogue. The play is a two-hander telling the story of Maggie and Jamie, a single mother and her only son living in Chalk Farm and how they are caught up in the tumult. What was highly effective about this play was that it avoided judgement of either camp; demonising neither the council flat ‘chavs’ deemed responsible for the destruction, nor the occasionally patronising efforts of politicians to explain events.
The play starts off with teenaged Jamie explaining what the riots were not about: race, consumerism, materialism, anger at politicians, anger at parents, anger at the privileged, boredom. Instead, they were about ‘everything and nothing’. While I appreciated the fact that the riots weren’t given a neat, one-size-fits-all formula for occurring, Chalk Farm went far enough in the other direction so as to venture nothing tangible about the events. To all intents and purposes, Chalk Farm is less about the week London burned and more about a mother realising her son is no longer a baby and questioning how much she really knows him.
Thomas Dennis as Jamie and Julia Taudevin as Maggie had excellent chemistry, Taudevin demonstrating lioness-like ferocity in defending her cub; the way she physically crumbles on the realisation that her son is not as innocent as she believed is very affecting. I would however have liked more interaction between the pair, as their accounts were addressed predominantly to the audience rather than to each other – though perhaps this was intended to highlight their increasing isolation from each other. Dennis excellently conveyed the transition stage of adolescence, stern-faced man one minute, grinning boy tucking into cheese and pickle sandwiches (crusts cut off) the next. As someone with a brother of similar age, Chalk Farm hit the nail on the head with the character of Jamie and the often contradictory nature of growing up; suddenly responsibility and choice are available to you, but are you mature enough to handle it yet?
An immediately striking thing about Chalk Farm that cannot be left uncommented on is its set. Dozens of CCTV screens are set up behind the actors, bathing them in cold bluish light, beaming out images of fire, shadowy figures and static, then a close-up of Jamie’s face, transformed in its fury and stripped of any childishness.
As an angle and commentary on why humans feel the desire to destroy, Chalk Farm washes its hands of any definitive response. As a family drama and an exploration of innocence and experience, Chalk Farm sets the stage alight.