Review: Dream School at The Space, London

Trigger warnings for the content of this review: cults, psychological manipulation, sexual manipulation/abuse, self harm

Thursday, 18th May 2023 at The Space, London


Reviewer: Emma Dorfman

The ensemble emerges. They are floating, euphoric. They are seeking out connection. They are giggling for no reason at all, but you know it must be a good inside joke. A small, pedestrian movement begins: a step forward, and a step back. As the jaunty music rises, the group elaborates further, moving into a synchronised routine of sorts.

And so begins what will emerge as a fast-paced, riveting multidisciplinary piece, in which we witness a group of close-knit theatre students in their first year of university slowly recognise they are in a cult. The story frequently flits back and forth between present day and the past as Betty struggles to remember specifics about how she and her friends entered and then left a cult led by her classmate’s father, Bobby (Justin Butcher). In the present, Betty’s boyfriend, Alex (Charlie Cassen), is an aspiring journalist looking for a rich, riveting story to get his foot in the door. In exchange for the opportunity to move in with him, Betty (Jennie Eggleton) offers up her story. 

As someone with an interest in crime and the strange and unexplained, I couldn’t help but note the eerie similarities the plot of Dream School has to that of the student cult at Sarah Lawrence, which was started by Larry Ray, a father of one of the students there. Like Bobby in Dream School, upon his release from prison, Larry decided to move in with his daughter (and her 8 or so other housemates, subsequently) and into her dormitory at Sarah Lawrence on a temporary basis. Larry was also ex-military, skilled at mind control, and believed by his daughter to have been wrongfully imprisoned. Also like Bobby, Larry engaged in therapy-like sessions with his daughter’s classmates, often using these sessions as a means to manipulate them, and ultimately, to even go to the extent of sexually grooming them. Additionally, Larry was also incredibly paranoid, often videotaping coerced confessions from his housemates.

What I have just described only scratches the surface of Ray’s abuse, and likewise, in Dream School, it would be overwhelming for anyone (and entirely unnecessary) to directly present all of the abuse endured by these students. To combat this suggestive staging and equally evocative scenography are employed as powerful allusions to the process of recovering a traumatic memory. 

The set (designed by Caitlin Mawhinny) is a combination of earthy and constructive elements: A mound of dirt with a few small ferns lies at the end of the stage, which is configurated as a runway. There is a pot with soil and a steak knife sticking out at the top of the runway, too. A powerful, intriguing image. The soil, perhaps, is analogous to the act of recovery– of unearthing something that otherwise remains deeply buried. And then there is the plastic covering that lines the edge of the stage at the end of the runway. This, along with the metal ladders at both ends of the runway and the untreated wood panelling at the top of the runway, is suggestive of rebuilding. But also, it’s perhaps a nod to the act of just putting everything out there, warts and all.

Alongside the set, allusive staging (courtesy of director Charlotte Everest) points to Betty’s elusive memories, as she struggles to find out the true nature of what happened to her and her friends at uni. In one scene, for instance, we see Tom (Felix Kai) being humiliated by Bobby. Because Tom scratched the Le Creuset pot ever so slightly, Tom is made to wear a dress. Sensing this isn’t a big deal for Tom, Bobby asks Naomi (Jahmila Heath), another one of the students, to get her vibrator. Now use it on yourself, Bobby urges him. Tom remains still, holding the vibrator in hand as pre-recorded video is projected, showing nothing more than the character’s pain in his eyes. It’s a safe, yet meaningful, way to show the effects of harm without unduly harm on the audience.

In another scene, with Naomi at the centre, we see Alex and Betty in an argument over what Naomi did to Betty all those years ago. Between the two, we see Naomi gesturing as if she had a knife in her hand. In swift motions, she stabs her stomach, covers her mouth, covers her eyes. Stomach, mouth, eyes. Stomach, mouth, eyes. Betty is convinced Naomi is hurting herself in the other room, using the steak knife she gave her for protection as a weapon on herself. But it’s all in Betty’s mind. No actual harm has come to Naomi, but in this moment, we feel the fear and guilt Betty must have felt.

Both of these scenes, and much of what happens in Dream School, offer beautiful examples of safe, effective ways to depict trauma onstage. The piece presents a myriad of possibilities that I’m sure other artists will steal in the hopes that we have more moments in theatre in which we can explore and (more importantly) learn from tragedy.

Dream School is at The Space, London until June 3rd 2023 – more information and tickets can be found here.

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