By Jordi Mand
Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by Royale Productions and The Large Group
Basement Theatre, Auckland | | November 19-30
The only people who seem to enjoy primary school are the kids. For everyone else who has to participate in it, it seems like a fresh kind of hell: the school administrators, the teachers, and the parents. These groups all come together to get these kids through and onto a life where they can take care of themselves. Between the Sheets is a play that shows the meeting of two of these groups: a teacher and a parent.
It’s the set-up for what appears to be a standard two-hander. A mother (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) has come for a parent-teacher interview for her Year Three son. She has turned up late, but the teacher can fit her in the last slot. They discuss her son, but before long there are revelations, and the play in turn reveals itself to be about something entirely different.
Despite the excellent, nostalgia-inducing set courtesy of Jane Hakaraia, this is a performance showcase. In that sense, it impresses. Jennifer Ward-Lealand is as good as I’ve ever seen her in a role that we’ve seen a thousand times before: a woman who is dedicated to her career. She deepens what could’ve been a cliché to a well-rounded character, one who has clear reasons for doing what she’s done, and even when the script has her recite things we’ve heard before, such as “I wish I didn’t have to work,” they come from a place that is deeply and keenly felt.
As the teacher, Beth Allen is appropriately stiff and bracingly earnest. She’s playing a character that we think we’ve seen before, but the cliché is subverted and subverted again throughout the play, and it’s her performance that keeps the character grounded in heartbreaking reality. Both performers have an enviable chemistry, especially while playing characters who have only just met, and once the play gets going, it’s a joy to watch them both.
Jordi Mand’s play shows an incredible talent for dialogue and structure. There’s never a moment where the pace lags, which is also a credit to Sophie Roberts’s direction, and the piece remains staunchly in the realm of a character study. There’s never any moments where the characters are stuck talking about the themes in the play; everything is firmly rooted in what these characters would do or say. Occasionally the play tends towards the realm of soap opera, especially with the sheer amount of revelations that occur in a taut seventy minutes, and it’s this tendency that prevents it from being anything more than a character study. It’s an enjoyable and incredibly engaging character study, but it stops a bit short of being anything more profound than that.
Sometimes, that’s all you need in a play. It’s a rare opportunity to see two actors of this calibre go tete-a-tete with each other in close proximity, and with a script that is genuinely deserving of their talents. You probably won’t get a chance to see it again, so snap up the chance while you can.