Review: STC’s Chalkface at the Sydney Opera House

Anna (Stephanie Somerville) is a 22-year-old freshly graduated teacher who arrives at West Vale Primary bright-eyed and ready to make a difference. Pat Novitsky (Catherine McClements) has been teaching there longer than Anna has been alive. Decades working at the underfunded institution has broken down any hope Pat once had for changing the system, and left her coasting at her job.

Hellbent on improving this place, and determined to enlist Pat in her crusade, Anna puts in place a series of events that will thrust Pat out of her apathetic slump and force her to care about West Vale Primary again.

Angela Betzien’s Chalkface (co-produced by STC and STCSA) is a play about hoping for something better, despite poor resources and terrible odds. Although Chalkface is specifically about teaching, and particularly the under-funding of the public education sector, Anna’s determination to improve the system when all seems hopeless is an admirable story with universal appeal.

As a political commentary about how some of society’s most important and hard-working individuals—teachers—are systematically undervalued and overlooked, Chalkface succeeds. However, as a comedy—which the play is marketed as—Chalkface is a disappointment.

The two leads anchor the show strongly and keep it watchable. Unfortunately, the writing and the supporting performances let the show down. Jessica Arthur is directing this play like it’s a broad comedy, but Betzien’s script rarely incites audible laughter.

While Somerville and McClements strike a successful balance between delivering authentic characters and landing their jokes, the supporting cast mostly come across as two-dimensional caricatures. Susan Prior (as Denise) and Michelle Ny (as Cheryl) deliver oddly exaggerated performances which shoot for big laughs and fail. Their larger-than-life deliveries lack the nuance that Somerville and McClements bring to their characters, and contribute to a mismatched tone.

Ailsa Paterson’s set design is my favourite part of the show. She has transformed the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre into a decrepit teachers’ staffroom with the perfect amount of neglect and attention to detail.

The intentions of the production—to pay respect to teachers and highlight the flaws of our public education system— are admirable. We are in year three of a pandemic that forced teachers to take an already difficult job, and complete it over Zoom. The talents and diligence of teachers have never been more obvious, and this show comes at the right time. However, noble intentions aside, the production itself is a letdown.

I came into this production hoping to get theatre’s answer to Abbott Elementary, a hilarious Emmy-winning sitcom set in Philadelphia, that follows this exact premise (determined, bright-eyed, young teacher takes on under resourced education system). Instead, I was disappointed. You want a cleverly written, witty comedy about schoolteachers? Go watch Abbott Elementary instead.

Jo Bradley

This review was originally posted on the ATYP website.

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