Australian playwright Angela Betzien’s latest play, Chalkface, performed this month by State Theatre Company South Australia, is a fast-paced, screwball comedy following the travails of a group of public-school teachers.
This battle-worn bunch, grown cynical after years of dealing with nightmare children (not to mention parents), meagre funding, and low wages, are suddenly faced with a new challenge in the form of a fresh-faced addition to their team, ‘child-whisperer’ Anna Park.
Anna’s main rival is embittered senior teacher Pat Novitsky, played by Catherine McClements. The two clash over child terror Hurricane Little, who Pat believes is a lost cause. Anna (Stephanie Somerville) insists Hurricane is simply suffering under rigid traditional teaching methods. Pun-filled jibing ensues (‘Pedagogy? Peda-dodgy, more like!’).
This back-and-forth could easily grow tiring, but thankfully later scenes between Pat and Anna push their relationship into more nuanced territory, where the humour is sharper and more surprising. McClements and Somerville play off each other here with expert comic delivery, making these moments together the highlight of the show.
A strong supporting cast ensure there is never a dull moment in the staffroom. Perennial State Theatre Company favourite Nathan O’Keefe, ponytailed and Lycra-suited, is the school’s slippery principal, intent on optimising performance and keeping the ‘clients’ happy.
Michelle Ny plays Douglas’s buttoned-up henchman and administrator, Ms Filch, who keeps the coloured paper under lock and key and regards her colleagues’ personal struggles as an inconvenient source of extra paperwork. Meanwhile, Ezra Juanta’s Steve nurses dashed dreams of becoming dancer, having suffered permanent injury thanks to Hurricane Little’s latest prank, while newly pregnant music teacher Denise (Susan Prior) is a particularly funny nervous misfit.
The entire play takes place in the school staffroom, allowing designer Ailsa Paterson to fit it out in gloriously shabby detail – peeling paint, overstuffed pigeon-holes, laminated signs, ancient kitchen equipment, and all the soap and sanitiser required in a COVID-conscious age. The aptly chosen costumes are also a highlight, particularly when Book Week arrives.
The play is advertised as being ‘a brutal smackdown of old versus new guard’, and there are certainly elements of this in Pat and Anna’s opening quarrel about the best way to manage Hurricane. By the latter half of the show, however, this plot point takes a back seat as a succession of increasingly whacky revelations about the teachers’ personal lives become the focus.
Chalkface, then, is less a satire of new-age pedagogical practices, than of the toll our broken education system takes on the tireless teachers who are its backbone, young and old alike. In exploring this theme, it is eminently and hilariously successful.
Chalkface by Angela Betzien
State Theatre Company South Australia/Sydney Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse Adelaide Festival Centre
Director: Jessica Arthur
Assistant Director: Clement Rukundo
Designer: Ailsa Patterson
Lighting Designer: Mark Shelton
Composer and Sound Designer: Jessica Dunn
Cast: Catherine McClements, Susan Prior, Nathan O’Keefe, Michelle Ny, Stephanie Somerville, Ezra Juanta
Chalkface will be performed until 20 August 2022 at Adelaide before touring to
Sydney at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from 15 Sep 15– 29 October Riverside Theatre 3-5 November and Canberra Centre 9-12 November.