Who knew Dudley Dursley could act? Actually, I did. Harry Melling has come a long way since his Potter days. I saw him in James Graham’s Angry Brigade in 2014, when he invested a down-at-heel dissident with unexpected poetry, and in the Glenda Jackson King Lear at the Old Vic last year, when he lent Edgar a gentle earnestness. He has a still but volatile magnetism about him, and a curious, monosyllabic delivery that somehow manages to be hugely expressive. And he’s by far the best thing about Jam.
Matt Parvin’s new play is a odd one. A two-hander, starring Melling and Jasmine Hyde as grown-up classroom clown and his traumatised ex-teacher, its greatest strength is its compellingly weighted concept. Melling is Kane, a troubled 23-year-old dropout who definitely has ADHD and may or may not be dying from a malignant brain tumour. Hyde is Bella – Miss Soroush – a half-Iranian, high-school history teacher, who has slowly rebuilt her life after it disintegrated because of an incident involving Kane a decade previously. Somewhere in the West Country, a grown-up Kane wanders into Bella’s new classroom, intent on reopening old wounds and igniting spent fires.
There’s bundles of potential here, but frustratingly little of it comes to fruition. Parvin’s plausibly crafted scenario sits at the juncture of several compelling debates – about the education system, about class politics, about the hidden prejudices of the liberal elite – and starts to ask some serious questions of them. And Brexit (always Brexit). There’s an undercurrent of nasty isolationist conflict running through Parvin’s text too, which rears its head unexpectedly in the play’s explosive, cathartic climax.
Melling’s Kane flits between topics like lightning. Parvin’s play does the same, and that’s its problem. Once Jam has alighted on something – how the pressures of everyday teaching brutally grind down the idealism of the newly qualified, for example, or how even the most open-minded teachers can’t completely escape their instinctual dislikes – and scratched its surface, it ticks the box and moves on. Parvin writes superbly authentic dialogue – Kane’s West Country accent is a mumbled symphony of vowels – but this lack of concentration, makes Jam seem disjointed and oddly inaccessible.
It’s a problem exacerbated by Tommo Fowler’s production, which mixes engaging naturalism with unnecessary abstraction. Emma Bailey’s design crams an abandoned climbing frame into the Finborough’s tiny space, around which Melling clambers throughout, and Alexandra Faye Braithewaite’s sound design is a eerie, fidgety echo of playground chatter. It’s stylish, stripped-back stuff that stealthily evokes the ghosts hovering over Kane and Bella’s conversation, but a drama like this, with roots anchored to Britain’s social fabric, requires grounding in the everyday, not lifting out of it. Must try harder.
Melling and Hyde are both great, though, he a squirming bundle of agonised regret and barely contained anger, she movingly embodying the essential battle of being a teacher: not letting the student know when you feel something. “One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them,” remarks Mrs Lintott in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. It’s this paradoxical relationship that Melling and Hyde capture so well, and that Parvin struggles to illuminate.
Jam is on at the Finborough Theatre until 17th June 2017. Click here for more details.