“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions.” It’s impossible to see Elijah Young’s school-set play Isolation and not recall the closing quote from the 80s classic movie – or it is, at least, if you are me, watching a play where I am a good couple of decades older than the teachers, never mind the pupils – but if Isolation is a snarkier, Northern Breakfast Club with added snacks and texting, it’s certainly no worse for that.
Premiered in May at South Shields Customs House, after Young was awarded Takeover Festival’s Young Writer Residency 2019 Award, the piece follows a disparate bunch of pupils who have all been taken out of regular class for the day and put in ‘isolation’, a sort of daytime detention that allows a school to punish unruly pupils without the inconvenience of making the teachers stay late. Inevitably, during the course of the day, secrets are revealed, faultlines exposed, and both pupils and teachers are revealed to be more than the facades and first impressions they present to the world.
The production boasts a charismatic young cast, all of whom impress. Jake Jarratt and Cameron Sharp – who had such great chemistry in their self-penned piece Wank Buddies – excel again here as Stephen and Dale, who respectively use laddishness and brittle humour as forms of self-protection. Jude Nelson’s bossy Poppy is a tightly wound delight, and Daniel Watson, Keira Falcus and Leah Mains give gutsy performances as their fellow detainees, while Luke Maddison is pleasingly restrained as a seemingly naïve newbie teacher who turns out to have a spine of steel beneath his mild exterior. Natasha Haws is a particular standout as the world-weary Miss Russell, whose deadpan delivery hides a heart battered by the troubles of her charges.
Young has a great ear for dialogue, and although the story touches on big issues, from sexuality to bullying, domestic abuse and suicide, it does so with an admirably light touch, keeping the laughs coming without ever minimising the seriousness of its themes. The key message – that we should be kind to everyone, as they all have more struggles than we know about – isn’t particularly original, but a compact running time, brisk direction by Jake Smith and a vinegar sharp script stop it from ever becoming too heavy handed.
Originally staged in a much larger venue, the transfer to Alphabetti still needs some tweaking: the smaller space suits the intimate scale of the show, but it’s victim to some truly terrible blocking, and needs more attention to the sight lines. Even in the front row, I missed whole speeches because an actor was standing right in front of the person speaking, and I spent so much time staring at people with their backs to me that I started to have flashbacks to my own snub-filled schooldays.
But this minor quibble aside, Isolation has much to recommended it: a fresh and vibrant piece by a young writer of real promise, brought to life by an admirably talented cast.
Isolation runs at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle from until 18th October. More info here.