A review by Alex Harrod for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

New End Theatre presents:

 

Death of a Nightingale

 

Written by: Alan Share

 

Director: Tom Scott

 

New End Theatre
9 March – 3 April 2011
 

 

 

Death of a Nightingale is a play that was written for a purpose. This may seem an obvious thing to say, but it is particularly true and important to emphasise with this performance. The work of Alan Share, a man who for seventeen years was the governor of a special school, addresses the controversial issue of inclusion for special needs children in mainstream schools which has now, been a matter of contention for some three-and-a-half decades. Turning the discussion of a topic that is inexorably caught up in bureaucracy, paperwork and politics into an entertaining drama is not an enviable task, but it is one that Alan Share and the actors of Hampstead’s charming New End Theatre have approached with gusto.

Set in 2002 at the fictional Brighouse School, a special needs institution threatened with closure, Death of a Nightingale follows some of the teachers and Local Education Authority officials who are involved in the battle surrounding the school’s fate. Told through the eyes of Tracy (Samantha Dorrance), a wheelchair-bound pupil at Brighouse, the play revolves around the increasing pressure that is put on the school’s head (Melanie Ramsay) to endorse the proposed closure and relocation of her pupils to ‘normal’ schools.

Throughout the course of the play, in between the scenes which move the plot along, we are taken into one of the school’s classrooms and shown several ‘music lessons’. These lessons show Emma Kirk (Feyi Babalola) interacting with her pupils through musical recordings and discussions on faith. Several of the teacher’s students are young actors with special needs from the Oak Lodge School in East Finchley. Each of the children, well supported by Jordan Loughran, give enthusiastic and heart-warming performances, with Terry (Max Lewis) delivering some of the play’s most humorous lines. The involvement of these children in Death of a Nightingale was a brave and astute decision; it gave the difficult issue at the heart of the production a human face and, as such, was a vital part of it. The performances of Max, Romina Bemani-Naeini and James Le Dain served to remind the audience of the potential these children have and the importance of unlocking it.

In some ways, the gravity of Death of a Nightingale’s subject matter does limit its success as a theatrical production. As mentioned previously, shedding light on the contentious, politically-charged, yet under-discussed issue of inclusion was never going to be transformed into a crowd-pleasing slice of entertainment with ease and there are points at which the play struggles under the weight of its responsibility. During the first act of Nightingale in particular, the pace of the action feels rather slow and the dialogue sometimes lacks the dramatic cutting edge that would make it truly engrossing -  at times, we are ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’ a few too many things. Perhaps this was unavoidable, given the fact that Share’s script is charged with both explaining the complex history and current state of inclusion, as well as creating an engaging plot. However, there are stand-out performances from Cecilia Delatori (one of several cast members who had the tricky job of playing multiple characters) and an all too brief appearance by Peter Mair. Shammi Aulakh, as well, excels in the second act as devious LEA official David Harding.

Indeed, the latter half of the performance was a vast improvement on the first in all respects. Once the scene had been properly set and the audience informed of the nuts and bolts of the situation, the story was allowed to come into its own and work its way towards a truly poignant climax.

The technical crew involved with the production did their duties flawlessly. Aaron J Dootson’s lighting was spot-on throughout, sympathetically bringing the mood up and subduing it whenever required. The layout of Rachel Vaughan’s set was also impressive, especially considering that another play had finished on the same stage just minutes earlier, necessitating a very quick turnaround.

Alan Share writes on his project’s website that the play ‘opens up issues that some might regard as settled. It tries to free-up constructive thought.’ This is certainly true and there is no doubt that the most important aspect of the performancewas the message it was trying to put across.

Although Death of a Nightingale may not be the most sophisticated show you will ever see at the theatre, it successfully raises awareness of an issue which affects many and deserves to be kept in the public spotlight and that, ultimately, is its point.

 

Box Office: 0870 033 2733
www.newendtheatre.co.uk
New End Theatre
27 New End, Hampstead, NW3 1JD
 £18/16


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