First things first. The addition of extra seating to the already intimate space at the Tristan Bates to stage Sticks & Stones in traverse is a cracking directorial decision. It makes the fireworks close and immediate, ensures character’s anger is palpable and leaves the audience little room to look away.
Not that we want to look away from the battle between working class white dinner lady (Catherine Harvey) and aspirational teacher of colour (Eva Fontaine). Both give performances that right-thinking audience members will lean in to and relish. They are never anything other than believable and clearly enjoy delivering writer Dameon Garnett’s zinging waspish lines; sometimes getting laughs, other times audible gasps.
Garret’s skill as a writer is clear. He quickly and effectively sets up a plot around social media posts that pits two world views against each other – a new one of cultural sensitivities and revisiting colonial history and an old one of football and puddings with custard where, critically, racist jokes are easily dismissed. The fact one immediately thinks of our current Prime Minister and his defenders is clearly no accident. Indeed, the familiar line of “I’m sorry if I caused offence” plays a key role. This is contemporary Britain in a nutshell and, for my money, an example of political theatre at its best. Ideology is effortlessly represented by the personal. Beliefs have real, tangible impact and actions have consequences. It is to everyone’s credit that, while we might sympathise with both characters’ predicaments, there is no attempt at finding false balance here – take note BBC Question Time. The old world is defiantly and emphatically shown the door. What happens next, though? How do we fix this? These are the questions you will ponder on the way home.
I am aware the above might make Sticks & Stones sound heavy going. It is far from that. Mercifully, we are far too engaged by the two fully realised personalities before us to feel lectured or preached at. The tight fifty-five-minute run time genuinely flies by. In a world where major theatres seem to be rushing to produce ‘state of the nation’ plays with numbingly long run times, this brevity is something to celebrate. Rasheka Christie-Carter directs with a welcome lightness of touch too. There are no intrusive concepts here. No clever tricks. The simple, almost leisurely single scene change is, in itself, a lesson in understatement. Lighting, costume and set design are all effective too; neatly realising school offices with an eye for detail despite the tight space. There are, to be fair, a few moments where things perhaps get over-animated. Given the quality and impact of the text, there really is no reason for anyone to be afraid of stillness and calm.
There has been a lot written about how fringe theatre ought to tackle the rise of right-wing popularism and the resurgence of old-school prejudices. Sticks & Stones is as good a response as this reviewer can imagine. It is an urgent, hugely enjoyable, beautifully crafted and wonderfully performed report from the front line of broken Britain. As such, it is definitely worthy of your time and attention.
Written by: Dameon Garnett
Directed by: Rasheka Christie-Carter
Set & Costume Designer by: Pip Terry
Lighting Designed by: Jonathan Chan
Produced by: Northern Edge
Booking until: 21 March 2020
Booking link: https://www.actorscentre.co.uk/theatre/sticks-and-stones/book