This new devised piece by Waxwing Theatre uses trigonometry as the common theme to link two young people’s lives. The two protagonists are separated by a period of two hundred years: Chloe (Maisie Turpie) is a GCSE pupil whose family has fallen apart. Arriving in a raucous middle-ability classroom she finds herself having to fight to keep her grades high enough. In the parallel Eighteenth Century narrative, Sam (Joylon Westhorpe), a young Royal Navy midshipman, is learning how to use his sextant and chronometer in order to rescue his ship from a rocky demise at the hands of the cocky new lieutenant. Both stories are bound by the lead characters’ dependence on a combination of quick wit and trigonometrical know-how to save their worlds.
Individually the stories function perfectly well, but the rather tenuous mathematical link does little to help the audience compare and contrast the characters’ challenges. Both strands of the narrative share the same cast and props; the company dash back and forth through time and across oceans, and at times the production becomes a little bewildering – which is a shame, because movement director Alexandra Green has done a good job with the cast to help evoke both the madness of war and of a modern classroom through physical performance. Unfortunately this appealing physicality is overshadowed by the sense of narrative confusion; though each set-piece has been choreographed with verve (a storm sequence aboard the ship is particularly strong and affecting), the scrappy plotting and occasionally leaden dialogue make the piece seem episodic and these individual scenes never feel fundamental to the narrative.
The cast do their best with the material, delivering some striking performances. As Chloe, Turpie is believable in her desperation to succeed in her studies, while Westhorpe portrays Sam’s bright intellect and tortured past with aplomb. Janet Harrison is also notable as both the petty officer’s flinty lover on board HMS Orion and as Chloe’s defeated and defeatist mother; Peter Kenny ably plays two quite different maths teachers across the ages. Strongest of all are David McLaughlin, as a kind-hearted midshipman, and Toby Hughes, as an unconventional supply teacher keen to rescue Chloe from her classmates.
Strong as these performances are they don’t quite compensate for the production’s structural and narrative failings. Much of the first act is given over to a maths lessons that adds little to the overall piece; this stands in sharp contrast with the crisper and more dramatic second act. It’s entirely fair to develop a story slowly, but in this instance it’s a little too sluggish and this slow pace adds little in the way of clarity. The maths element – all those sines, cosines and tangents – sometimes feel shoehorned in rather than essential to the story and the production never quite capitalises on the comparison between two young people whose strengths depend more on their courage than their ability to derive such-and-such an angle from a sextant or a whiteboard.