Playwright Angela Betzien describes Chalkface as a “whack love letter to teachers”. And it sure is.
If you bought a ticket to this play, examined the staging and walked out, it would already be worth your while. Ailsa Paterson’s set is an incredibly detailed, astoundingly accurate recreation of every staff room, ever. Peeling wallpaper. Nescafé instant coffee. Magnetic cupboard doors in an apathetic shade of beige, opening to reveal a crowd of identical ‘Best Teacher’ mugs. The fridge that elicits a retch from everyone who dares show the optimism of opening it. There may or may not be a resident rat. And amongst all that, the devastatingly optimistic personal touches from the teachers who inhabit the space – handwritten name tags on pigeon holes, a teapot repurposed to hold flowers, a photo of a recently deceased dear friend.
Both the set and the characters are masterpieces of caricature, somehow capturing and exaggerating the ubiquitous elements shared by every public school in Australia, ever.
The standout dynamic, by far, is between Pat Novitsky (Catherine McClements) and Anna Park (Stephanie Somerville). The former, battle-hardened and embittered by years of what feels like wasted effort. The latter, 22 years old, fresh out of her masters degree and joyfully spouting the promise of “neuroplasticity” any chance she gets. They circle each other adversarially, revealing an unexpected backstory and complex inner worlds.
The ragtag crew of teachers is rounded out with Ms Filch (Michelle Ny), the shady ex-investment banking administrator whose facial expressions are a world of comedy in their own right; and dance-loving, workers-comp-seeking Steve (Ezra Juanta). Music teacher Denise (Susan Prior) is a pregnant, anxious misfit, relieved to finally have a balm for her loneliness in the form of her unborn child. Comically hyperbolic, her character shines with incisive moments, leaving you to wonder what she might have been without her stacks of implied neuroses. Finally, there’s the school’s corporate-minded principal Douglas (Nathan O’Keefe). Ponytailed and overconfident in his obnoxious cycling lycra, Douglas is the perfect antithesis to Pat. Although they clearly can’t stand each other, deep down they want the same thing – a successful school with happy students – if only they could reconcile how to achieve that.
If this play is a love letter to teachers, it’s a love letter that acknowledges how numbing it can be to spend years teaching in a system that doesn’t value the profession, even while it reminds the audience of how much impact our teachers make on our lives, and spotlights the camaraderie that can develop in the trenches of the staff room.
Chalkface comes across as a plausible-ish story with one foot creeping towards absurdism. Delightful and chaotic with a melancholy undercurrent, this story will sing for anyone who went to primary or high school here in Australia. Even if you didn’t and have never met a teacher in your life, the themes of friendship and loss, purpose and frustration are universally relatable. You’ll laugh, you’ll sit in some discomfort, you’ll laugh some more, and you’ll leave the theatre with a renewed appreciation for the often overlooked heroes of our educational system.
Chalkface plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until October 29, 2022.