Emma Geliot's picture

Rachel Redford as Steph in Parallel Lines

Long ago I stood in a doorway with a seven year old lad repeatedly spitting in my face. I can t let him back in to torment the other children in my care but I can t do anything else.Stop it Kyle , I say,You know why you can t come inside. What you going to do then? he sasses back,if you touch me I ll say you hit me and you ll lose your job .He s right , I think, as the green gobbets drip from my chin, but I know where this comes from, what it s like at home, how powerless and confused he feels, so I have to take another twenty minutes of this until he gets bored and leaves.

Power, powerlessness, adolescent sexuality, trust and betrayal these are all potent themes for a play, particularly if explored from multiple perspectives. So why did Dirty Protest Theatre s production of Parallel Lines leave me feeling so frustrated?

How can I put my finger on what caused my consternation? Was it the title? As the story plays out it seems this is more about two hermetically sealed existences, plastic balls like cheap funfair prizes that occasionally bump into each other but with little impact, rather than stories on train tracks travelling together in the same direction to the conclusion.

For once it wasn t my allergy to plays about issues (sorryIssues , my fingers are crooking in the air). The subject matter here is potentially meaty a teenage girl (Steph, played by Rachel Redford) accuses her teacher, Simon (Gareth Pierce) of an inappropriate relationship with consequences that could have provided all sorts of dramatic rich pickings. Instead we got some titbits and glimmers, but they are seen like a pair of knickers trapped tantalisingly in the hinge of a suitcase and hardly unpacked.

Maybe it was the odd accents and muddled vernacular: Take all the grammatical peculiarities of Cardiff, Barry and Merthyr and jam them all together, then wander off with one, then the other rather like yo-yoing between Glasgow and Arbroath via Dundee. As a result the characters and the play are not located, do not convince, and they need to for what could have been a powerful theme to touch a nerve. The actors have to compensate with physical business, but the last time I was acted at so strenuously I had to be physically restrained from charging the stage with bolt croppers,intent on chopping off a wagging finger (I always take heavy duty cutting equipment to the theatre).

Here is a play, which won the inaugural Wales Drama Award in 2012 , with three potentially strong female leads and a central theme that prods at a pervasive modern anxiety. But here too, is a stroppy teenager, a slatternly single mother and two middle class professionals. Easy stereotypes.

So, on the left of the stage mother Melissa (Jan Anderson) and daughter live a rackety life, in perpetual squalor with local radio soundtracking their arguments. The relationship is uneasy, tempestuous, and the impact of the mother s haphazard liaisons with unsuitable men seems to be at the root.

The other half of the stage sees the teaching couple listen to Six Music and eat wholemeal toast. They worry about a leak in the shower that s making the ceiling bulge overhead and if the poppies will ever flower in their garden. Work is stressful and objects are moving or disappearing.

There were some nice moments players next to each other, but inhabiting different imaginary spaces on the stage, echo movements for a brief few seconds; some early laughs and occasionally the actors stop talking and sit in character, which seems more convincing without the disturbing accents or the platitudes about the state of the teaching profession but they are rarely followed up.Steph, who asks her mother if she's pretty, breaks into a sexually charged dance (and introducing a new genre of table twerking), full of confidence in her sensual potency. The wife, Julia (Lisa Diveney) who is not the accused teacher, talks about the spark of sexual recognition between her and an adolescent male pupil in what felt like the most convincing moment in the play, but then that moment was ruined as we realise that she teaches at a school that has endless poorly-attended poetry slamsand that she makes pupils write poetry in detention.

I really wanted to like this and kept hoping for a redemptive moment. There s the kernel of something here a dramatic arc with a denouement but the characters are thinly drawn and there s just too much damn acting business. The mongrel accents and conflated verbal quirks serve to make the mother and daughter seem stupid, rather than natural, and belie some perceptive lines while the final line appears to come out of an entirely new character s mouth. And as for the teaching couple ... by the end I was praying that the waterlogged ceiling would finally fall on their heads and stop them throwing books on the floor or talking about dead poppies.

Back toAward Winning , as it s a phrase that we seem so hung up on. The Wales Drama Award is a new initiative and a collaboration between National Theatre Walesand the BBC'sThe Writers Room [sic] , but where were they in all of this? Dirty Protest have moved away from their usual modus operandi with this production and both they and writer Katherine Chandler could have really benefited from some developmental support to build on Chandler s award, while director Catherine Paskell needed to pare back the performances to make them real.

Nearly 250 hopefuls submitted scripts for the Drama Award, two runners up get1,000 to develop their scripts and10,000 is a nice chunk of change as a prize for Chandler, but if the award is to have any impact then the prize should just be the starting point. Just saying. Emma Geliot

Parallel Lines is at Chapter Arts Centre until 30 November