Chalkface ★★★★

Written by Angela Betzien. Sydney Theatre Company. 15 September – 29 October.

Chalkface is a sitcom on the stage. In fact, it feels like a pitch for a TV show that has been translated to the theatre. That’s not a bad thing per se. It’s funny as hell with some heart underneath and a great night out.

When Chalkface was announced I wasn’t enthused. It had an air about it. Like those promos you see on Channel 9 screaming about the “hilarious, new comedy on Monday night” that you know will be the same old American rubbish, starring a washed up stand up comedian or faded Hollywood star, filled with bad jokes and hammy acting. If someone has to tell you they’re funny, they’re probably not funny, right? So I walked in prepared to smile wryly and have the odd chuckle but leave pretty unmoved. Thankfully I was wrong about that.

With the action confined to a decrepit primary school staffroom, the scene is set and instantly stolen by Susan Prior as Denise. In retrospect, it felt odd to begin with a “side-character” who’s narrative runs more or less parallel to the main plot, but Prior is simply the MVP of this show. Her moments of insanity were pure joy to watch and made of the most entertaining scene-changes I’ve seen in years. Denise’s mental health is not great and yes, it’s played for laughs (as is everything else in the show) but the actual pain is there on Prior’s face in moments between the laughter. 

The core of the story is the three-way tussle between Principle Houston (Nathan O’Keefe), long-time teacher Pat (Catherine McClements) and new graduate teacher Anna (Stephanie Somerville) over a problem child, Hurricane Little. Pat is cynical about the impact they have on the little terrors they teach and is mourning the loss of her friend, fellow teacher Sue. Anna is keen to impress with her knowledge of “neuroplasticity” and the like, trying to bring new energy to the school. And Principle Houston is desperate to push Pat out and fill the school with corporate management theory. 

Like all great plays, it’s the little things that make Chalkface so much fun. The tiny moments and visual gags that elevate scenes. From the School Administrator Cheryl Filch (Michelle Ny – also brilliantly funny) imitating the cover of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and her unwittingly offensive announcements over the tannoy, to the verbal quips that fill each and every line. This is a cracking comedy script. Well honed and purring like a proverbial kitten. In an audience filled with teachers who laughed knowingly at visual cues (the principal arriving in cycling lycra and helmet got a big chuckle) the attention to details paid off. Kudos to director Jessica Arthur for balancing it all out so well.

If I’m being picky, I wasn’t loving fellow teacher Steve (I don’t know what he added to the story) and the treatment of Denise’s mental health could have had a pay off in the end. The play never felt uniquely Australian either, these are issues faced all around the world and a little more local specificity may have helped, but the show had already won me over so I was ready to let things like that slide. 

I’ll be honest, STC has had a bit of a hit & miss year for me in 2022. Some stand-out, brilliant shows and some that felt horribly forced and poorly presented, but they seem to be ending the year on a real high. Between A Raisin in the Sun, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and Chalkface you’ve covered all your bases – a powerful classic, a bold new work and an approachable, crowd-pleasing comedy. This is exactly how a season should play out. I’m keen to see what 2023 has in store.

Chalkface is a comfort-food comedy. You will have a great time reminiscing about your own childhood experiences, laughing at the observations of terrible parents (the gags about kids names were gold) and feel your heartstrings pulled gently at the plight of underfunded schools. Grab a ticket and take a friend, this is a good time out by the harbour!







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