It’s August 2011, in an apartment in a tower block on the Chalcots Estate – what Americans would call a housing project-in a neighborhood in north London, the titular setting for Kieran Hurley and AJ Taudevin’s multimedia-enhanced two-character play Chalk Farm.
The city is still coping with the aftermath of the six days of rioting that rampaged throughout the UK that month. Maggie (Julia Taudevin) works in a property insurance company’s call center and has been on the phone with shopkeepers whose businesses were looted and homeowners whose windows were smashed and houses burned, so she knows exactly how hard it’s been. But she also knows who’s getting blamed–young, working-class boys who live on housing estates just like hers; young men just like her teenaged son, Jamie (Thomas Dennis).
Jamie is fourteen. In many ways, he still has the sweetness and naivete of a child, but he’s also starting to pull away from a mother who dotes on him, perhaps overmuch. (Dennis strikes the balance nicely, with his equal enthusiasm for the “Bat Angels” he once imagined as the city’s protectors, and the “best day of my life” excitement of running into a supermarket with a crowd of looters.) Maggie calls Jamie “Pickle” and wants to send him to school with the crusts cut off his sandwich inside his Batman lunchbox. He wants to be with his best mate, Junior, playing video games and hanging out at a disused playground with older teenagers; he wants a little freedom and a little respect, and he definitely does not want to be seen with that lunchbox, no matter how much he genuinely loves his mother.
And Jamie wasn’t home on the night of the worst rioting in Chalk Farm. Maggie mostly believes he was at Junior’s, as he’s told her, but at the same time…maybe she doesn’t. She’s afraid to see her son as a “looter,” a “chav,” “scum”–as her richer neighbors and news pundits are labeling those who took part in the riots–but she can’t help being afraid, with a grinding, nagging anxiety whose weight can be seen growing on Julia Taudevin’s face.
Hurley and Taudevin, with director Neil Bettles, have crafted a hyper-local, relentlessly specific piece that perhaps had broader political resonance to a British audience familiar with its geographical details and neighborhood color. Even the multimedia components (three columns of projection screens) focus on this specific patch of London and these two people, not a larger context. The 2011 riots were international news, but this zooms in so closely on this one family that it’s about individual pixels rather than anything close to a big picture. The raucous joy Jamie feels as he’s swept up in the chaos. Maggie’s simmering resentment and constant terror, which come from living in a world where a single mother in a housing estate is constantly getting messages from the world that she’s a failure. (In an American context, this likely would be refracted through racial tension; here it’s all about class distinctions.) The case of sparkling rosé Jamie wants to steal as a treat for his mother.
The two characters and their world are sharply drawn, especially Jamie: that childish enthusiasm that turns into equally childish rebelliousness with no real motivating force and absolutely no thought of consequence. He’s easily swayed and impulsive, not a criminal, but in the eyes of the world there’s very little difference. And Maggie, who wants nothing more than a bit of peace, a safe life for herself and her son, sees that getting harder and harder as Jamie gets older, sees her declining ability to protect him and also his declining reliance upon her. Her choices come from a roiling mix of love, panic, self-pity, and a need to take whatever small bit of control she can have.
Bettles keeps the production crisp and simple, with focus remaining on character development despite the constant presence of the video elements. These are used as scenery–sometimes quite literally the views from the roof or windows of the tower block–more than narrative counterpoint. Surprisingly, though the prevalence of cameras on London streets is referenced, the video isn’t used much to provide the context for Maggie’s ever-rising anxiety: her certainty that one of the thousands of public CCTV cameras captured her son, and it’s only a matter of time before the police are knocking down their door.
Early in the play, Jamie knocks down a list of things the riots could have been about but aren’t, really, or maybe the riots were about all of them. It’s a powerful moment, but as the piece develops, they become primarily the backdrop for a mother’s act of sacrifice. And while that resonates emotionally, it also sometimes feels like Hurley, Taudevin, and Bettles are backing off from the broader, more ambiguous story they could be telling. As it is, it’s undeniably moving, but not entirely satisfying.