If you’re looking for a show which explores the way in which schools handle kids with special educational needs, this isn’t it. There’s flickers of it in Olivia Duffin’s high-octane Taylor, whose constant inability to sit still or focus on the simplest of tasks for more than a few seconds suggests ADHD, but besides that, Holly McKinlay’s play is remarkably devoid of any mention of the learning difficulties signposted by its title. Neither Akila Cristiano’s beautifully understated Aalia, nor Wesley Lineham’s nonplussed Teacher ever refer to Taylor’s fidgety behaviour as anything more than ‘attention-seeking’ (Aalia), despite frequent references to her ‘file’ (Teacher). Nor does Aalia herself appear to be struggling with anything remotely resembling a learning difficulty: after all this is a girl who’s landed herself in an intervention session by writing a controversial essay. Don’t be fooled by the title though: S.E.N. might not be about special educational needs at all, but as an interrogation of racial integration in schools, this is up there with Vivienne Franzmann’s Mogadishu.
Set in a classroom in South East London, the play takes place in real time, tracing the frictions between two school girls as they endure an hour’s detention as part of an intervention session overseen by the eponymously anonymous Teacher, apparently one of series of good university graduates who start out teaching in tough inner city schools before defecting to the financial temptation of the City. Taylor is a white trash repeat offender whose wayward behaviour may or may not have something to do with her racist step-dad; Aalia, a quick-witted, sharp-tongued young Muslim determined to prove that there is more to her than meets the eye, more than just a girl in a hijab. Both are rule-breakers, though in very different ways: Taylor goes at it all guns blazing, a bull in a china shop determined to wreak as much havoc as possible; while Aalia is forever probing, testing the waters, seeing just how much she can bend the rules in her attempts to alleviate her boredom. Caught between them, cast in the impossible roles of mediator and mentor, is the Teacher, a man bound by the bureaucracy of crib cards, hamstrung by marking, desperately trying to lend his brittle olive branch the authority of an oak.
McKinlay’s script is strong on tension, shifting gears quickly between events and rarely flagging in energy, but it’s the performers who carry this. Inevitably, much of the limelight falls on Duffin’s more extrovert Taylor, whose blatant disregard for authority gives rise to the occasional bout of schoolboy guffaws from the stalls. But it’s the unspoken bond between Cristiano’s Aalia and Lineham’s Teacher that’s most captivating here: an apparent alliance that ultimately withers under the lights of generation gaps and social pecking orders. You can almost see the thoughts drop into Cristiano’s head, from her retrospective consideration of the immediate circumstances that have landed her in the session, right through each and every intention to provoke Taylor, to her final resolution to resist definition by the Teacher, to choose be neither the good little Muslim girl, nor the radical probably-has-a-bomb-in-her-