Review: Before It Starts
Image: The Bread & Roses Theatre
Claire Louise Portelli
Growing up is hard and 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.
Based on true events and real life stories; Naked Frank Theatre combine written accounts and verbatim text to tell a cold story about homophobia in schools in an outlandish, controversial and hilarious manner.
Before It Starts is a brutal and unforgiving take on teenage life, sex, social media and friendships.
Written as an educational show, there is 'no compromise with audience comfort zones'.
Put simply, if you are squeamish about staring the hard truth of teenage homophobia in the eye and laughing lavishly in it's face, then this isn't the show for you.
Written and performed by a predominantly gay cast, this piece is brazen, witty and unapologetic.
Teenagers can be cruel and ruthless and Naked Frank Theatre have bravely gone where others have never dared to go before.
After successful runs at the Camden Fringe and the Winter Theatre Festival, the show earned it's five star reviews and was commended for it's full frontal approach to controversial topics.
Now the show is back on tour with a new lease of life.
It's highly physical, relentlessly challenging and there'll be even more laughter.
This devised piece by Naked Frank Theatre centres on three teenage school girls who are forced to undertake compulsory PSHE classes which are delivered by a tutor who (they say) lacks expertise and uses the Collins Dictionary to deliver chunks of the curriculum.
For the uninitiated, PSHE is an acronym for 'Personal, Social and Health Education', or sometimes 'Personal, Social, Health and Economic' education.
In various forms, it has been around for some time as a compulsory subject in secondary schools.
As the title suggests, it covers topics like sex education and tackles issues such as bullying, drugs and alcohol misuse, among many others.
As a teacher for over a decade in the early part of my working life, I used to teach a form of PSHE.
In those days, the subject was rarely taught in other schools and, even in the semi-enlightened one that I worked in, training for the staff was casual and limited as this show implies about present-day teachers of the subject.
Here, the three teenagers we meet are supposedly aged around 16 - one of the characters claiming to be 'almost 17'.
But I didn't buy that because their actions and antics seem more like those of kids a couple of years younger.
And that matters, because there's quite a difference in behaviour and attitudes between 14/15 year olds and 16/17 year olds, and I didn't feel the actors here found the appropriate tone for characters of the age they were purporting to represent, even though I readily admit that my knowledge of present-day teenagers is limited.
The basic plot concerns a new girl at school who, it transpires, is gay and becomes the subject of 'group chat'.
We never meet this girl or see the affects of this public exploration of her sexuality on social media.
The three girls we do meet are not cruelly vindictive, deliberately malevolent or even particularly homophobic.
They are, though, naive (one of them alarmingly so) and their actions in spreading the word about the newcomer to other pupils in the school seems more the result of a lack of thought and consideration, rather than deliberate intent to incite homophobia.
If that is indeed the case, Naked Frank Theatre put their collective finger on something important - that homophobia can be ignited even by those who are not out to provoke it intentionally.
Moreover, they rightly draw attention to the negative impact of social media which can fuel hurtful and harmful discussion with potentially dire consequences.
However, for much of the time during the show, I found myself wondering just what the play was really trying to convey.
And judging by the ending, the devisers felt the same resorting, quite literally, to spelling it out for us, and that is the hallmark of insecurity - it's invariably better to leave the audience to judge just what they take away from a play.
I also wondered whether we were indeed the appropriate audience.
Though homophobia and how we prevent it should certainly be of interest to adults, 'Before It Starts' might be more valuable as a TIE (Theatre In Education) production.
But for either adults or schools, the show is too long as it stands.
At least 30 minutes need pruning from the running time and that would have negligible impact on anything materially relevant.
Valuable time is wasted on interludes with graffiti artists which serve little purpose other than to slow down proceedings.
Teaching about issues such as homophobia and racism is obviously crucially important.
But communicating facts, illustrating potentially life-threatening effects (like suicide) and providing safe space for full and frank discussion are insufficient, even when teachers are highly trained for the task.
Because it also requires educational establishments to take a more fundamental review of the ethos they create - for example, in terms of respect for individuality that they nurture and enforce.
And there's a nagging matter which is more difficult to eradicate, as Naked Frank clearly demonstrate - teenagers (just like adults) are prone to making ill-judged and ill-conceived statements on social media (and sometimes verbally too) that they later regret.
And homophobia is not just for schools to tackle - attitudes throughout society count too, with parents as well as our politicians and other public figures needing to set examples for young people.
Though Naked Frank Theatre rightly and bravely set out to explore a difficult issue and, overall, seem on the right track - some adjustments need to be made to the show if their efforts are to be as powerful and effective as I'm sure they would like them to be.
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