>SPARKLESHARK by Imaginarts

>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 1 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


SPARKLESHARK is a play about the power of art to soften the sordid realities of life. And lest this sounds too grandiose a statement to make about something written for children, Phillip Ridley's play about an afternoon in the life of nine secondary school pupils is set on the grey and cluttered rooftop of their comprehensive in a rough part of London; being cool and part of the "in" crowd are the order of the day, but so too are the more unpleasant corollaries of ostracism and bullying. Being spurned by the school stud may not be the stuff of high tragedy, but allusions to abortion and unhappy family backgrounds make for true grit and firmly situate SPARKLESHARK in the tradition of reality drama.

So nine (three girls, six blokes) secondary school children on a roof in the middle of London: one of them, Jake, writes stories; in part to escape the misery of being the school pariah, in part to indulge an imagination which turns the grim London-scape of grimy roof-tops and television antennae into magical mountains, castles and forests. Unsurprisingly, Jake is also the epitome of school uncoolness, and, as we all know, this is contagious. Nevertheless, the three girls (Polly, Natasha and Carol) take a shine to him and defend him from the cruel depredations of Russell, the school stud (with a brain to match), and his minions, Buzz and Speed. What this involves is spinning out a fairytale extempore in which all of them have acting parts. Conceived in Scheherazade-fashion to stay Jake's execution at the hands of Russell and Co., the story takes on a life of its own, culminating in an ugly fight between Russell and Finn, Polly's deaf and dumb brother.

>>'Brian Seaward's conception of the play was largely successful, nay, inspired even in parts'

Imaginarts, then, started off with a fat bonus in the bank - Ridley's excellent script. Thankfully, the fun didn't stop there Chong Chia Suan, as the tough-on-the-outside-scarred-on-the-inside Natasha, turned out a truly brilliant performance complete with an authentic-sounding English working-class accent. Kate Naughton was a scream as Carol, a Natasha-wannabe and hanger-on, as were Ben Matthews and Zachery Moselle playing Buzz and Speed, the resident buffoons of Russell's court. Chong and Naughton in particular were able to tease out issues of pecking order and power play that exist in every teenage friendship. The girls' side, however, was regrettably let down by Joni Tham's mediocre rendering of Polly, who as Jake's staunchest defender and as the princess in their make-believe world, is one of the more central characters. Tham's diction and delivery leaves much to be desired under normal circumstances; she has not a prayer of mastering the intricacies of the Queen's English as spoken by a fifth former in Clapham Common (or wherever Ridley's play is set.) This was in fact a sticking point for most of the other cast members (barring Chong, Naughton and Matthews) who could certainly have done with a couple of intensive sessions with an accent coach.

Still, director Brian Seaward's conception of the play was largely successful, nay, inspired even in parts: at the end, when the brutish Finn comes on to stage, he is quickly co-opted as the Evil Dragon into the world the teenagers have built. In a scene reminiscent of 'The Lord of the Flies', they turn against him wielding broomsticks, poles and other menacing-looking household items in a chillingly tribalistic fashion; strobe lighting accentuate the violence when Finn (played by a wonderfully Neanderthal Adi Soon) takes on Russell in a one-to-one combat. The end of the play sees the company rapping the name of 'Sparkleshark' in an excellently choreographed sequence as one by one they disappear down the hatch (it's tea time).

Judging from the hushed and wide-eyed response this production received from the younger members of the audience, SPARKLESHARK is not simply a play about the ability of art and the imagination to transform the lives of nine teenagers; what Imaginarts has here produced is something that is itself testament to the power of theatre to move, resonate in and magically transport the watching self - surely the highest and best thing any play can do, children's or otherwise.