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The Theatreguide.London Review

Schism
Finborough Theatre   Spring 2016

A depressed schoolteacher has his home invaded by a fourteen-year-old student demanding his help. 

She has cerebral palsy, which limits her mobility and to a small extent her speech, but her mind is clear and her anger palpable. An insensitive school administration has essentially discarded her by classing her with the mentally disabled and she wants the opportunity for a real education. 

Impressed by her obvious intelligence and determination, he gets her mainstreamed and, a few years later, helps her overcome more prejudice and get into university. 

The nature of their relationship changes over the years, and eventually the student must move past the teacher, the same inherent pessimism and fear of failure that kept him from his full potential threatening to hold her back. 

In a way, Athena Stevens' play is a variant on the thrice-filmed A Star Is Born, the protege's upward arc crossing the mentor's downward path. 

It is brought particularly alive and also, unfortunately, somewhat limited by casting the author herself in the central role. And now I must tread carefully along the borders of political correctness. 

Athena Stevens has cerebral palsy, and the physical limitations of the character she plays are also her own. 

She brings an absolute authority to the characterisation, not only in the externals but in the depiction of a determination not to be held back, that more than outweighs the occasional moments of difficulty understanding her speech.

But – and I know for certain that this will disappoint and anger the playwright-actress – it also distracts from the play itself. 

This need not always be true. Audiences have learned over time to be colour-blind, gender-blind and even disability-blind in casting, and the theatre is all the richer for that. 

Were Stevens to play, say, Juliet, we probably would be able to wilfully blind ourselves to her physical condition. 

But here the character emphatically insists that we see her condition, and so we can't not-see it. And therefore we can't not-see the actress's condition. 

And to the extent that we are aware of that, we are watching and emotionally responding to the performer and not the play.

Meanwhile, the play does have other limitations. The girl's chosen profession (and the one the teacher previously failed in) is architecture, which is clearly intended to carry a symbolic weight and meaning it is never really given. 

The ending is rushed and undeveloped, and although Schism is a two-character play, it is not evenly balanced. 

The teacher's role is essentially a supporting one, and despite giving actor Tim Beckmann his dramatic arc and a couple of impassioned speeches, playwright Stevens makes sure her character wins all the arguments and dominates all the scenes.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review -  Schism - Finborough Theatre 2016

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