Sticks and Stones – Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Dameon Garnett

Director: Rasheka Christie-Carter

Racism rears its ugly head at an inner city school when teacher Afua (Eva Fontaine) and dinner lady Tina (Catherine Harvey), who considered each other friends, find themselves on opposite sides when the latter’s social media posts come under scrutiny.

Dameon Garnett’s single act play seeks to examine the intersectionality between racism, feminism and friendship. Afua has always fought for women’s rights, and supported Tina, who came from a home with history of domestic abuse. The pair have children the same age, have babysat for each other. But then Afua sees Facebook posts that Tina may not have written, but which she liked and shared, that express racist sentiments.

It is to the production’s credit that such an explosive topic is handled with a deftness of touch that rarely strays into proselytisation. Instead, we get discussions between two sharp, intelligent women whose position in life was afforded them through parentage. Harvey’s Tina, a witty Scouser, struggled with an abusive father whose violence scarred her life; she sees Afua as someone who’s always been able to benefit from affluence thanks to her lawyer father.

From Afua’s side, though, matters are quite different. Just one generation further back, her grandfather was Ghanaian; her attempts to have one themed school lunch based on food from Ghana is dismissed by Tina as not being “our” culture, which prefers bangers and chips. As the discussion deepens, Tina expresses further comments in which she expresses discomfort at white people being pushed out and forgotten.

There are wider discussions to be had on this topic: for example, Tina’s frustrations are rooted in poverty and Britain’s class system, which affect people of colour just as much as white people, if not more so. Rather than diffusing his play by introducing wider topics, Garnett instead chooses to focus in on the personal relationship between the two women, inviting us to extrapolate beyond the walls of Afua’s office for ourselves.

And how people do that will affect their decisions about the play’s intentions, and its conclusions about the place race and racism has in modern Britain. Those who are looking for vindication about their concerns about “wokism” and “cancel culture” may find enough to bolster their own beliefs; those who know the pernicious effects of assumptions about race, who have to deal with perpetual insinuations that any career advancement they get is more about “fulfilling diversity targets” and not about their ability to do the job, may find a different message.

I found myself wishing that the power struggles that emerge near the play’s conclusion had been a little less imbalanced. We see that the sort of “jokes” Tina has shared have infected her own beliefs – or vice versa – when she is put under pressure. But some of Afua’s tactics and conclusions are shakier than they could be; Garnett’s script implies that the way she is applying the interpretation of a loosely worded clause about “bringing the school into disrepute” is not without its flaws.

But wanting to delve more into a messy situation, to extend a play beyond the scope of its hour running time, is the mark of a play which knows how to involve and engage its audience in vital topics of today’s Britain.

That is a rarer thing than one may think. When it happens with such skill and good nature as it does with Sticks and Stones, it is to be celebrated.

Continues until 21 March 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Skilful dissection of racism in Britain

User Rating: 4.85 ( 2 votes)

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