Spider – Bitesize Festival, Riverside Studios, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer and Director: Jude Benning

Some 25 years after starring in Spider, a gruelling piece of physical theatre in the West End, Frank Dowling is now a teacher in a London drama school. But his techniques of humiliating and belittling his students, which he claims will toughen them up for the acting careers that lie ahead, increasingly come under question.

Jude Benning’s one-act play, appearing as part of Riverside Studios’ Bitesize Festival, has certainly hit upon a topic that deserves greater attention. Deadline magazine’s Drama Schools Uncovered series has chronicled a number of serious allegations and investigations in several of the country’s top drama schools, while the documentary Tread the Boards made its film festival debut last year.

So one would hope that a dramatic piece would go some way to exploring some aspects of such cases. How does a teacher come to believe that exploiting and humiliating their students is a valid teaching practice? What causes the management of the school to turn a blind eye? If students go out into the acting world believing such behaviour is acceptable, what does that mean for the rehearsal room – and for the classroom if they, in turn, become teachers?

None of those questions are explored in Benning’s piece, which paints its picture with such broad strokes that any hope of detail is lost. We see Frank’s monstrous side from the off, as he cajoles his female students into being more and more intimate as they play wives to his husband in drama exercises, and then tells the students that they will need to undress for a Bikram Yoga session, berating anyone who questions its appropriateness.

It is in these moments that Benning comes closest to latching onto the crux of such matters. Self-consciousness can truly get in the way of an actor’s craft, but whether that requires breaking students’ spirits is questionable, to say the least.

The ability to explore that in any great depth is hampered, though, by the second half of the play concentrating on a four-day “improvisational game” in Epping Forest. Frank splits his six students into two teams of three, only to find that they unite to teach him a lesson.

What the purpose of the game is, what the students should be doing, and how it ties into their academic work are questions that remain unanswered in Benning’s script. One supposes this might be based on the writer/director’s own experience of drama school, but a little clarity for those who did not partake of such an outward-bound experience would help.

As it is, the shift of power from Frank to his students, which could have been used to provide more light on the despotic teacher’s psyche, is hampered by Benning drawing each of the students as a two-dimensional caricature, and the desire to introduce some elements of the action-horror genre. There are some attempts to explore some of the thorny issues about college life – if someone chooses to sleep with their instructor, is that an abuse of the teacher’s position of authority, for example? Again, Benning begins to explore those issues, but there is not enough craft to the dialogue to sustain such examination.

Spider could have been a timely exploration of the abuses of power in the acting college industry. Right now, it is not, but events such as the Bitesize Festival allow creative teams to get a show on its feet and examine what works and what doesn’t.

There remains the possibility that Benning’s work might grow to become a true dissection of drama school bad practice. Heaven knows we need one.

Continues until 25 February 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Missed opportunity

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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