Set in a small primary school, teaching assistant Jamie (Ellen Darke) and teacher Henry (Isaac French) are emphatically unconventional. The classroom looked amazing, with lots of childrens’ drawings hanging up, fairy lights and all the trappings of your standard primary school classroom. By starting the actors off cross-legged on the floor, Sardaneh plays with their childlike qualities: innocent, accepting and imaginative. The characters aren’t infantile or even particularly naïve- they’re just genuinely nice.
For Jamie, this enjoyment is pretty rare seeing as she’s mostly plagued by her OCD. Compelled to tap and perform actions an even number of times, her mind follows a sort of rhythm that she becomes enslaved by, leading to a breakdown when she tries to teach a child how to read a clock. The performance could so easily have been irritating or unconvincing but Darke makes the quirks believable, even charming. I was glad that the term OCD was only mentioned once, by the bitchy gloating teacher who acts as the voice of cynicism (Kathryn Brascia). Hogben focuses on it as simply being part of Jamie’s identity; perhaps an unwelcome part but nevertheless a part. By looking at it in a human way, it resonates not simply with anyone with a condition but with anyone who behaves a little differently.
Of course, being set in a school, as an audience you prepare yourself for the moment when one of the ‘teachers’ tells you off for talking at the back. However the audience participation worked really nicely in showing Henry’s teaching methods and his hijacking the curriculum for some music-making with the kids. Because we see his character as being fun and not simply unfocused, the audience invest a lot more in the possibility that Henry might fall prey to the job cuts- much to the delight of the bitchy teacher (Kathryn Brascia). The character is named rather abstractly in the programme as ‘Gossip’ but she does resemble a particular type of teacher, the kind that thrives off staffroom politics. Brascia plays this cynicism nicely; she is convincingly unpleasant but actually quite realistic in her doubts about whether Henry and Jamie can cope with the job as prescribed.
The play is a romance but not really a boy-meets-girl story. It seems to be more about acceptance and a sort of nostalgia for the playfulness and the innocence of childhood. The danger of having a romance in a story about acceptance is that Henry’s character could come across as putting up with Jamie’s quirks in order to get what he wants. However French uses Henry’s own personal passion for music as a kind of basis for his character, which makes his performance come across as genuinely sweet rather than simply playing at being nice. It complements Darke’s portrayal and marks them both characters out as being unconventional. The obvious connection between Henry’s love for music and Jamie’s rhythmic patterns is played quite naturally. It may be an old-fashioned literary device but it works.
One of the best scenes was again a clear metaphor; Jamie sees a blackbird at the window and feels compelled to create some sort of context for it, so Henry suggests that it could be female and the two of them create a backstory for the injured bird. It was sweet without being sickly, mainly because Darke and French actually played the characters as adults attracted to each other rather than overgrown children.
The music theme continues with Verity Tan on vocals and Gersom De Koning on guitar portraying Jamie’s inner struggle with her compulsions. On paper it sounds pretentious but it works beautifully in the play, creating a unity that makes Percussion a sophisticated piece of writing. The only slip-up on that front for me was the abstract naming of the third teacher and the unnecessary name-drops of the title. Though the title is unusual, the play itself explains the significance of the title without needing any name-dropping, which is impossible to do subtly however good the writer is.
As well as unity in the writing, the production is very unified. I loved the pulsating blue fairy lights at the end, blending into the theme of the play. The play was very short- only thirty minutes- but I think it worked well at this length as there were a lot of interesting themes for the audience to puzzle over as they leave the theatre. The ending was openly romantic but it was deserved and it didn’t undermine the social issues that had been raised earlier.
It’s so hard not to write a gushing review for this but it’s one of the few plays that having left the theatre, I wanted to watch over again.