There is a moment towards the end of the first act of Vivienne Franzmann’s fine debut play which stops the action dead in its tracks and holds the moral universe she has created in the palm of its hand. Peter (Christian Dixon), the husband of wronged protagonist Amanda (Julia Ford) is in the midst of a blazing row concerning the actions of the schoolboy which have thrown their lives into chaos.
As Amanda tries plaintively to defend the circus of lies and accusations which the young Jordon has initiated, Peter turns away from her and, punching the smallest hole in the fourth wall with a glance, announces “He doesn’t deserve your sympathy.” After watching Jason’s cowardly actions rip through Amanda’s comfortable existence, the audience is surely inclined to concur. However Franzmann’s great achievement in Mogadishu is to render all such self-evident truths precarious, and to open onto the endlessly complex grey areas where most conflicts and actions truly occur.
Mogadishu tells the story of a good woman betrayed by a system where trust can be easily abused, and where suspicion can quickly spiral out of control. When high-school teacher Amanda is pushed to the ground by Jason, his decision to pre-empt her complaint with his own assault charge, bolstered by a fabricated claim of racial abuse creates a chain reaction which quickly engulfs her and her family. Franzmann’s scenario is hardly original, arriving in the midst of a spate of plays exploring the plight of inner-city schoolkids and teachers, and owing an obvious debt to the witch-hunt of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but it succeeds in other areas. The writer’s own experience of school teaching gives her account of the layers of blind bureaucracy and procedure which come to entrap Amanda real authority. As measures intended to safeguard children and teachers alike begin to fall inexorably into place, Amanda quickly finds herself in the jaws of a formidable adversary.
The play is at its best when dealing with the relationships between Amanda and her family, or between Jason and his desperate father. These opposing domestic scenes are brilliantly drawn and contain much of Franzmann’s sharpest dialogue. Less successful are the scenes of Jordon amongst his friends which occasionally veer too close to caricature. Too many of the jokes centre around the teenagers’ ignorance, or the crudity of their patois, for these scenes to play comfortably. Additionally, the plays final moments strive too fervently for tragic symmetry, and threaten to seriously stretch credulity. These small weaknesses, however, are more than made up for by the production, which succeeds in every aspect. Ford’s portrayal of Amanda as a woman undone by her own good-hearted belief in Jason’s potential is quite brilliant, and Shannon Tarbet plays her daughter Becky with a bolshy but brittle confidence which is gradually fractured by Jason and his friends. Best of all if Malachi Kirby’s Jason, whose malevolence in the playground is made all the more tragic by his confused desire to impress his father in their gloomy flat.
Matthew Dunster directs with a keen awareness of the space and, aided by Tom Scutt’s elegant, cage-like design, achieves some startling effects. The wire pen which seems to claustrophobic when filled with brawling kids becomes a vast wasteland when Jason slouches on his chair at home, his dining father palpably distant. An atmosphere of growing threat is maintained throughout, bolstered by the constant presence of Jason and his friends, who visibly move the set during scene changes, and often arrive early for them, sullenly stalking the adults from the edges of the stage.
Though as a play it is far from perfect, it remains a startling debut and one that makes Franzmann a name to look out for.