Here is an audaciously inventive, sparky yet sensitive, giddily enjoyable new play that deserves to be packed to the rafters with kids on school trips. Ross Willis has created an extraordinary exploration of adolescence with his tale of 12-year-old Sonny, who invents a superhero, Captain Chatter, to help him with his stammer. It is brilliantly performed in this dream of a production from director Sally Cookson, complete with eye-popping projections, a lurid lime-and-orange colour scheme and stunningly expressive physicality all round.
Raphel Famotibe makes a confident stage debut as Sonny, whose homemade comic books introduce us to Captain Chatter (the superb Ramesh Meyyappan, dressed as a sort of space-age sprinter). Sonny’s relationship with him veers from sidekick to nemesis: Captain Chatter helps save him from having to speak in public but Sonny must ultimately learn to live without him, especially when he lands a role in his school’s production of Hamlet.
This push-and-pull is reflected in Sonny’s new friendship with the lippy Roshi (a barnstorming Juliet Agnes), who lives on his estate, and his relationship with his teacher Miss Wainwright (Amanda Lawrence, hardboiled yet soft-centred). Wainwright is locked in battle with the callous headteacher, Miss Fish, who is the school’s real bully and symbolises a wider ideology of labelling children rather than striving to understand them. Jenny Fitzpatrick, in hiss-worthy mode as Miss Fish, doubles as Sonny’s mother in scenes that sting with sadness. The play considers specific experiences and misconceptions around stammering alongside other themes of communication, especially regarding mental health.
Willis’s mastery of words is matched by the fonts used in the creative captioning on screen from designer Tom Newell: comic-book kapows jostle with Shakespeare, ghoulish grindhouse dialogue with textspeak, heartfelt eloquence with a flood of F-bombs from teachers and students alike, institutional jargon with scatological puns. As the insults ping (“Miss, did you fight in the second world war?”), it feels as if the whole thing is harnessing the energy of a Year 8 classroom.
Willis can make quotidian detail startling: a missing dog sign is printed in comic sans, the description of someone’s eye colour becomes an insult. Even the stage directions ping: “Sonny rips out his vocal cords” leads to one particularly haunting physical sequence.
Laila Diallo’s movement direction is felt in every performance, from Sonny’s fury and frustration to Miss Fish’s officious strut. Katie Sykes’ design – lit by Aideen Malone – consistently surprises (those weaponised quills!) and there is a compelling variety in Benji Bower’s electro score, played by a band above the stage, and in Jonathan Everett’s sound.
By rights, this school-life play should go straight on the curriculum, and not just because it offers an eye-wateringly funny, expletive-laden synopsis of Hamlet and a richly resonant interpretation of Shakespeare’s opening lines. Willis’s play unfolds itself in miraculous ways. It’s some kind of wonderful.