Written by Angela Betzien, Directed by Jessica Arthur
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
03 November – 05 November 2022
Photos by Prudence Upton
The crowd heaving into the Riverside Theatre on Thursday evening was abuzz with energy. It was the palpable feeling of teacher groups, young, old, and retired excited to see a slice of their lives reflected on stage. Angela Betzien’s Chalkface didn’t disappoint. Betzien herself describes her play to be a “whack love letter to teachers”, but not only is it this, it’s also a portrait of burnout, of optimism, the hope that teachers truly can have an impact on their students, all wrapped up in a ball of humour and insanely sharp dialogue.
Set in a dilapidated public primary school, the most impressive element of the production stands as Ailsa Paterson’s set. The detail to attention in each corner of this set was carefully chosen to bring us into the hidden world of the teachers’ staffroom. The audience picked up humorous elements before the show even started. A chalkboard with ‘Term 1,
NAPLAN NAPALM Revision’ stood leering over the assortment of chairs; pigeonholes with teacher’s names continued the eyes’ journey over to the large Nescafe container of coffee, an essential for any staffroom. The out of bounds, forbidden cupboard of office supplies ended the set next to the photocopier plastered with notices and warnings. Every teacher in the audience could be heard giggling at each carefully chosen detail to bring this set to life.
Set over the course of a school year at fictional West Vale Primary School, Chalkface’s heart rests on the shoulders of the pessimistic Pat Novitsky (Catherine McClements) and optimistic Anna Park (Stephanie Somerville). McClements plays the embittered school teacher who’s experienced it all, wearing her burnout through her insanely funny dialogue. Throw away lines of “beige” school children, and the dreaded fear of ex-student Hurricane gives the show its energy and overarching conflict. Whereas Somerville’s over-ambitious, uber-positive and pedagogical dialogue conflicts with McClements to give the show its depth and centralised dynamic.
It’s hard to not roll your eyes at both, while at the same time relating to both. Ms. Park’s spouting of “neuroplasticity” and being able to control the most unteachable student is grating, whereas Ms. Novitsky’s battle-hardened nature is cynical and depressing. Betzien reveals complex stories for both, unexpected connections and of course, the ever-present hope that each might come to impart their experience on the other.
Director Jessica Arthur brings caricatures of teachers onto the stage, only allowing McClements and Somerville to have the most depth. Joining the staff are the bike-enthusiast, fund-driven Principal Douglas (Nathan O’Keefe), the ex-investment banking administrator Ms Filch (Michelle Ny), workers comp-seeking, secret dance lover, Steve (Ezra Juanta) and the overly anxious, heavily pregnant music teacher, Denise (Susan Prior).
Each one brings their own energy to the staffroom and their own objectives for the school year to give the story colour. The obnoxiously ponytailed O’Keefe is in constant conflict with McClements, Pat, each playing a strategic game of chess to get what they want out of the year. Ny’s Filch is shifty, sly and pulls elastic facial expression to be seen from the furthest reaches of the theatre. Her constant stapling of Health and Safety signs and unintended sexual innuendos on the school intercom were a consistent highlight. Juanta and Prior both act as extra comedic pulp to the piece, neither really adding anything essential to the plot but still provide further insight into the colleagues that teachers will know, and students will recognise.
Betzien manages to make you question why teachers do the profession they’ve chosen, and ultimately answer that question with a smattering of heart.
The true glory in Chalkface is in Betzien’s ability to get the most gags out of the world of the teaching profession, while speaking some brutally honest truths about the education system itself. When reading other reviews on Chalkface, you’ll be able to tell which reviewer has lived experience in the teaching profession, and which missed the nuances and messages in Betzien’s writing.
Hearing the audience groan at the mere mention of NAPLAN, finishing nursery rhyme sayings that teachers repeat to accept the class they’ve been assigned, and jumping at the whoops of cheers at lines such as, “So you think you deserve more than thanks, do you?” showed where the target audience of Chalkface was. Betzien manages to make you question why teachers do the profession they’ve chosen, and ultimately answer that question with a smattering of heart.
The plot may be thin for those who aren’t in education and tends to jump off track towards the end of the piece. However, Chalkface still manages to provide a payoff that shows development in its characters.
Chalkface is a love letter to teachers, reminding you of the hope that each teacher holds, while providing educators catharsis in its brutally funny dialogue. Attacking everything from arsehole Principals to the lack of Government funding in public schools, Angela Betzien will have you belly laughing and wanting to finally write that thank you letter to the teacher that inspired you.
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Director Jessica Arthur
Designer Ailsa Paterson
Lighting Designer Mark Shelton
Composer & Sound Designer Jessica Dunn
Assistant Director Clement Rukundo
Ezra Juanta, Catherine McClements, Michelle Ny, Nathan O’Keefe, Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville
Ana Maria Belo, Glenn Hazeldine, Shirong Wu