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Mogadishu, Royal Exchange, review

Maria Roberts admires but can’t love Vivienne Franzmann’s award-winning play

Published on February 3rd 2011.


Mogadishu, Royal Exchange, review

The Bruntwood Playwriting Competition is a cherry-topped opportunity for playwrights. Applications are submitted anonymously to the Royal Exchange Theatre and past winners, such as Ben Musgrave (2005, performed 2007) have leapt from obscurity to centre stage.

I was not upset by the so-called offensive elements: caustic language, self-harm, despair, or even suicide. I was, however, left with an overwhelming sense that pure motivation and storytelling had been sacrificed in favour of set pieces.

Cue this debut by Vivienne Franzmann, who was one of four writers awarded first prize in 2008. Franzmann’s writing CV is already sparkling with accolades: she also won the George Devine Award for most promising playwright of 2010, and is currently under commission to Clean Break Theatre and the Royal Court.

The play follows the story of Jason (Malachi Kirby), a disturbed and menacing ringleader who lands his softie middle-class teacher Amanda (Julia Ford) in big trouble when he accuses her of racism and assault in a bid to cover his own back. From herein begins chaos—the Mogadishu of the title—as Jason envelops his playground crew in his dastardly plan. Malachi Kirby’s performance as Jason is nothing short of excellent as he morphs from an intimidating hateful little shite at school, to a fretful, uncertain and apologetic son at home.

Jason’s effective change in character was obviously signaled by slipping on different clothes. For his hardman persona: trainers, a hoodie, and an earring; yet school tie and smart shoes in his role as an anxious child. Kirby entices the audience to despise and sympathise with Jason; and this of course mirrors the predicament of Amanda, the teacher whom he wants to destroy.

The young cast, most appearing for the first time at the Royal Exchange Theatre, put in impressive performances. Each enjoyed some great comic moments, with particular tag-team efficiency employed by (Ben) Fraser James and (Chuggs) Tendayi Jembere. A special mention should also go to Ian Dickinson whose cloying sound design superbly complimented the uneasy atmosphere of the cage that encased the stage.

Mogadishu covers acres of interesting ground: how white middle-class teachers relate to students from a different background, the danger of racial tension, and what happens when an average little white girl, here in the form of Amanda’s daughter, Becky, (Shannon Tarbet) is assumed to be doing OK because she’s an A* student. Yet Mogadishu tries to hit the hills, sky and sea too and it is here the play gets (forgive the mixed metaphor) bogged down.

Jason thinks he can escape trouble: “if everyone says the same thing”. The play’s downfall is that too many characters “say the same thing” and snap back rabbit-fashion dialogue, rather than adding to the mix.

ACTING HEAD, CHRIS: I know this is difficult
AMANDA: Do you?
CHRIS: I do

A few seconds later:
CHRIS: That’s not fair
AMANDA: Isn’t it?

Or:
AMANDA: I don’t feel like me anymore, I don’t feel like myself, I don’t feel like I know who I am.

And on and on it goes. If there was an award for overused words in a play, Mogadishu would win bronze for ‘why’; silver for ‘what’; and gold for ‘I don’t know’.

Jason’s response to his father is, ‘I don’t know’; Chris’s response to Amanda, ‘I don’t know’; and Amanda’s response to Chris ‘I don’t know’. When my companion asked me if the play was over, or it was only the interval, my response was ‘I don’t know’.

I was not upset by the so-called offensive elements: caustic language, self-harm, despair, or even suicide. I was, however, left with an overwhelming sense that pure motivation and storytelling had been sacrificed in favour of set pieces. The plot was overcrowded. The dramatic reveals were painfully drawn out. I wanted to love Mogadishu but when Amanda said “I don’t know” yet again in the final furlong I wanted to stand up and scream, "I don’t fucking know either".

Mogadishu packs in every social problem going, whilst saying little. It could say so much more, if only it tried to do less. Get a ticket because there’s value seeing these emerging actors, and this new work — just don’t be surprised if you leave feeling irritated and a little angry.

Maybe that’s the point.

Mogadishu was the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition Winner 2008. It’s at the Royal Exchange until 19 February. Box Office 0161 833 9833.www.royalexchange.co.uk

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Steve Waterhouse LysFebruary 1st 2012.

Went to see this at Liverpool Playhouse with a group of young people (I am a youth worker) all of us thought it was brilliant and provided many discussion points

Myles FailbetterFebruary 5th 2012.

An overloaded reworking of Oleanna, with yoof but without the subtlety. Some good, if shouty performances, but some very unconvincing moments. An experienced inner city teacher who needs telling how pupil complaints are investigated? A stroppy pupil with over 100, yes 100, discipline offences on his record being believed? Don't think so.

Myles FailbetterFebruary 5th 2012.

But, on t'other hand, good to see a Playhouse audience average age 20 odd instead of the usual 55. More drama like this to get the yoof into the theatre, innit?

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