BLOG Alice Vernon

NWR Issue 109

Parallel Lines, Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Dirty Protest’s gripping production, ‘Parallel Lines’, played to a full theatre in Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Friday 30 October. Earlier this year, I blogged about the company’s ‘Dirty Aberystwyth’ – an evening of rapid-fire short plays from local authors – and I mentioned that I hoped to see them back in town in the future. With ‘Parallel Lines’, a gritty domestic drama directed by Catherine Paskell, Dirty Protest made a very clear statement that they are one of the most exciting emerging presences in Welsh theatre.

‘Parallel Lines’ is a play about relationships. Set in Cardiff, the story follows Steph, a bright teenager from a troubled background who initiates an inquiry based on the claim that her teacher, Simon, has been inappropriate towards her. The accusation forms a rift bridged by the classroom set and the phrase: ‘Something happened.’ Divided in two; Steph (Lowri Palfrey) and her cat-like mother Melissa (Jan Anderson) struggle to communicate with each other over the issue, while Simon (Gareth Pierce) and his partner Julia (Sara Lloyd-Gregory) struggle to keep their emotions in check when the case gets more and more serious.

Written by Katherine Chandler in 2012, ‘Parallel Lines’ echoes the tension of David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’, but is brave enough to explore the teacher-student relationship on a variety of levels and with a revelation as insidious as it is heartbreaking. Where petty staff room politics isolate Simon, issues of class surround Melissa whenever she is called to a formal meeting. At the same time as being viciously demonized by Julia, Steph is almost bullied by her mother into declaring the accusation was false. And the members of staff who label Melissa a prostitute are also those who try to protect the school’s reputation. The ironic parallels of the play are obvious at first, but it is with a growing sense of unease that the two sides start to pare away from each other. Things begin to ease for Simon, but Steph’s condition swiftly deteriorates. Chandler never fully reveals the sexual contact between them – it is at most hinted in a flashback at the very end – but the contrasting states in which she presents the two relationships at the play’s climax show more about the truth than anything the characters say. Judging from the conversations I heard as the audience left, everyone had come to the same conclusion as to which side held their sympathy.

The play was a triumph of lighting and set design. On stage, there was nothing but a teacher’s desk and eight chairs despite only one short scene actually taking place within school. The setup was almost sinister in the way it was used to form the domestic settings of the two relationships – the audience understood that Steph and Melissa were sprawled on a sofa, but all we could see was Simon’s desk. Lighting was used to signal the transition between the parallel stories and featured as a kind of prop in its own right. The play was also punctuated by snippets from FKA twigs’ ‘Figure 8’ – an appropriately moody track that further supported the atmosphere of Chandler’s story. Everything about ‘Parallel Lines’ showed intricate creative decisions, from the retro plastic chairs to the well-doodled notebook design of the programme. It gave the audience plenty to mull over, and no doubt stirred up some old memories with its raw and knowing depiction of school experiences.

‘Parallel Lines’ left me emotionally exhausted, but also buzzing with the feeling that I had seen a very exciting performance indeed. Witty, unflinching, and with a superb cast and crew, it was a fantastic example of modern Welsh theatre. I’ll end by reiterating how much I want to see the company’s future productions in Aberystwyth. Dirty Protest are only going to get better.

Alice Vernon is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

‘Parallel Lines’ by Katherine Chandler was first produced in partnership with Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff in 2013 and was the winner of the Wales Drama Award in 2012. This run, which ends this evening, Friday 6 November (7.45pm) at Theatr Hafren, Newtown is Dirty Protest’s first national tour.


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