The Brink - At The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

A tremendous new play about living life on the edge that will have you hanging on every word,says Liz Vercoe

Couple Nick and Chloe are in their late 20s and while Chloe is getting a measure of the world and how to shape her future, history teacher Nick is slightly marooned between the student he once was and the professional he should really be. His is a hand that still reaches out to be held. We know this because he's having a recurrent bad dream, an apocalyptic bad dream that wakes him and won't let him sleep again. And of the people he does turn to find a voice of reason, his girlfriend, fellow teacher Jo and his headmaster only make things worse.

Ciarán Owens makes Nick funny and real and constantly on the endearing side of hopeless. He squeezes from his lines a combination of laughs and desperation for a simple life which will allow him to get to grips with his subject and even learn how to be a good teacher. Instead, having nothing to compare it with, he's in a chaotic school with absent teachers and little planning and has a girlfriend pressing him to help her rise to the professional big time. Shvorne Mark's always restrained Chloe surreptitiously turns the screw in expressing her frustration with Nick, who she sees as lagging behind her in some invisible rat race.

Vince Leigh, Shvorne Marks, Ciarán Owens and Alice Haig

It's all perfectly paced around staff-room black humour of whether a card with a picture of Jesus on it is suitable for a group signing for someone terminally ill, the ins and outs of coping with one bathroom when two of you have food poisoning or whether the pigeons on the school roof are carrying impetigo. Alice Haig's Jo, a school teacher "lifer", delivers humour with its feet comfortingly on the ground.

Writer Brad Birch suggests, in the play's notes, that the nine characters should ideally be played by four actors and, significantly, that the person who plays Chloe should also be year-10 pupil, Jessica, who is thrown together with Nick in a lunchtime maths club. It is also no accident that the headmaster Mr Boyd, Chloe's boss Martin and "student one" are also to be played by the same actor, in this case Vince Leigh. It's a challenge, for not only is Mr Boyd multi-dimensional in himself, ranging from an almost God-like fatherliness to creepily devilish, the spoken lines of all three characters eventually interweave like cheese wires knotting and cutting through Nick's mind.

For we eventually realise it is all about Nick's state of mind and his world being torn apart. We lose sight of the truth, the facts, as much as he does. Even time shifts and defeats our efforts to make it linear. As directed by Mel Hillyard and designed by Hyemi Shin we, like Nick, become focused on the four simple illuminated cubes of the set. Constantly they are rearranged and reordered into squares and triangles or taken away like a children's lesson in subtraction. Until there is nothing left to cling to.

The play suggests this is a dangerous world if you don't grow up fast enough or have the emotional maturity to cope. And many do not. As Jessica says to Nick "You have to be an adult otherwise we can't be children. And if no one teaches us properly now then how can we ever be grown-ups?

Once again the Orange Tree has served up a box of delights on its tiny centre stage with a 75-minute play that works hard every second to satisfy its audience.

Liz Vercoe
Images: Helen Warner

April 15, 2016